Pitchfork MAY 26, 2014 - by Jayson Greene


Owen Pallett's 2010 album Heartland marked the first appearance of "Owen Pallett" in his own music. Before that, he operated under the pseudonym Final Fantasy, until Square Enix rights holders objected. The "Owen Pallett" of Heartland, however, was still a figure essentially rooted in fantasy: the album told the first-person story of Lewis, a self-aware fictional character who does battle with the God of his universe. (The God's name? Owen Pallett.) Pallett's presence was a dramatic construct, in other words, meditating on authorship and agency, and the fact that the songs were set in Spectrum, a fourteenth-century country Pallett invented, added another distancing tool. There was powerful, communicative pop songwriting on Heartland, but Pallett built the album like a logic maze, perhaps so we could never locate him inside it.

On In Conflict, Pallett mostly steps free of his own labyrinth. The album is mournful and restrained in tone, featuring his most pleading and open vocal performances. The lyrics, meanwhile, veer often into excruciatingly personal territory: On The Passions, he invites us into his bedroom while someone goes down on him. "You hook your pinkies in my jeans / I'm twenty-eight and you're nineteen," he croons. If Heartland had him tentatively dangling a foot in autobiography, In Conflict finds Pallett taking a running leap off the dock.

"I was inspired by my interactions with John Darnielle while on tour with The Mountain Goats," he told the New York Times' T Magazine about the decision to dig deeper into his own soul. "He has this apparatus in his brain that turns the most inconsequential life events into magic." "Apparatus" is a very Pallett-ian word choice, offering a peek into how his mind grasps the minds of others. He thrives on processes and structures; his music can sometimes feel like a series of rigged gizmos. To see Pallett live is to be equally dazzled and mowed over - looping violin lines in real time, singing and playing and stomping pedals and band leading and dryly joking, all at once. You are so astonished that sometimes you forget to be moved.

He's less concerned with dazzling us this time around, and as a result he moves us more. His looped violin is still the DNA of the music, but the giddiness has been carefully siphoned from it: The arrangements are far simpler and cleaner, highlighting his beautiful, long-breathed melody writing. On Song For Five And Six, he croons "The sun has set on me," in a delicate head-voice, the rising melody cutting straight to bone. That same effortless falsetto lifts the stepwise melody of Infernal Fantasy heavenward and invests the big power ballad arc of The Secret Seven with profound ache. If nothing else, In Conflict is a fantastic argument for Pallett's virtues as a pure pop singer.

Even in "confessional" songwriting mode, however, Pallett is still heavily allegorical and occasionally inscrutable. For every straightforward-sounding admission, like "I'll never have any children / I will bear them and confuse them" from I Am Not Afraid, there are stretches like this, from On A Path: "Dig, dig for silver in the name of keeping the order / Silver is nothing more than the displacement of water / It's a trick of the light on the face of your daughter and / Or your son." Pallett's lyrics teem with thick bands of language that act like yellow lights in the listener's rush to associate him directly with any of the album's narrators.

By the end of In Conflict, it's not clear which of the album's characters is Owen Pallett - or, if they're all just mini-Owens carrying pieces of Pallett with them. At least one of them calls him out directly: "Owen, where were you to stop the fire?" he wails on Infernal Fantasy, a song that talks, as many of these songs do, about tortured lust. The overall effect is less layers of a brilliant puzzle and more shattered mirror shards.

There are traces of blood here, too, and at least some of it is Pallett's. "The world will forget any good you have done," he assures us bleakly on The Riverbed. "There's a gap between what a man want and what a man will receive," he muses on Song For Five And Six. "You stand in a city that you don't know anymore/ Spending every year bent over from the weight of the year before," he sings on On A Path, a line that becomes, slowly, "I stood for a city but I don't know anymore."

Over time, In Conflict reveals a series of oblique takes on volatile private emotions - sexual need, spiritual exhaustion, reflections on mortality. It's fitting that Brian Eno, the original oblique strategist, joined Pallett for these sessions; besides gracing the album with some clear Eno touches (the tumbling chorale of "By bill, by vote" on On A Path, the Remain In Light-reminiscent chanting "Wait for sunlight" on Infernal Fantasy), he shares Pallett's belief that the best way forward is at an acute angle. In Conflict might not be an autobiography the way you or I would write it, but make no mistake: the deeper you look into it, the deeper Pallett himself stares back at you.