From his 2005 debut album Has a Good Home onwards, Canada’s Owen Pallett (Formerly known as Final Fantasy) has carved his own niche as one of music’s premier classical/pop crossover artists. Since then, he released another pair of gorgeously textured LPs in 2006’s cheekily titled He Poos Clouds and Heartland in 2010, yet still found the time to etch his place as the go-to string arranger for everyone from Arcade Fire to Taylor Swift to Linkin Park. This month he returns to solo mode for In Conflict, a 13-track set for which he’s enlisted a little help from acclaimed ambient sonic architect/musician/producer extraordinaire Brian Eno.
With such a high-profile and aurally unique entity as Eno taking pride of place on the credits list, Pallett could have been at risk of being overshadowed on his fourth full-length release were it not for his own unmistakable sonic fingerprint, anchored by his sweet, yearning vocals and lush string arrangements. With Owen himself serving as producer, there’s a clarity of vision on In Conflict which belongs to Pallett and Pallett alone, making for an incredibly personal listening experience. This being said, whether you’re David Bowie, U2, Talking Heads or indeed any act lucky enough to be a footnote on Eno’s illustrious discography, his sympathetic input to any project with which he finds himself entangled is something you wouldn’t really notice unless it wasn’t there. This is evident in his tasteful guitar/synth contributions by Eno in sideman mode all over In Conflict from the emotional sucker-punch of album opener I Am Not Afraid to the arpeggiator-heavy lead single Song For Five Six.
While there’s some pretty dark territory being explored both musically and emotionally on this record – like the cinematic, Radiohead-in-an-abandoned-cathedral vibe on The Passions or the bourgeoning glitch-build of The Sky Behind The Flag – the moments that seem to shine brightest on In Conflict are where the gorgeous, mid-‘00s twee-pop meet with Pallett’s digital wizardry on tracks like the adorably sincere The Secret Seven or the fidgety, possible eulogy to his former alias Infernal Fantasy. At his best, Pallett manages to achieve, over the course of one beautifully balanced record, the task of creating lilting, Baroque pop infused with tasteful electronica. Think Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois and The Age Of Adz mashed together into one cohesive unit.
There’s an Imogen Heap aesthetic present on a lot of this record – particularly on the title track and the headphone masterpiece Chorale – that show just how deep an artist can go, both sonically and personally when they lock themselves in a studio with only heartache and their own perfectionist neuroses as company (OK, and Brian Eno). This sounds negative, but as a rule tends to produce some truly sublime art as Heap proved in her 2010 documentary Everything In Between and Pallett shows time and time again over the course of In Conflict. Even the instrumental interludes —>1 and —>2 swell and contort with all the feeling and honesty of a true auteur’s stunning singularity.
There are a lot of musical plates spinning on In Conflict but despite the melancholy captured by Pallett throughout, none of them seem to smash thanks to his poise as an artist and commitment to seeing some of his biggest ideas yet come to loving fruition.