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Parker Evans is an economics senior and Mustang News music columnist.
Those familiar with the work of Canadian composer/songwriter Owen Pallett shouldn’t be surprised by anything anymore. Now that he’s performing under his own name and hanging out with everyone from Arcade Fire to Brian Eno (who contributes plenty of moody synths to this album in a very appropriate collaboration), In Conflict feels like a long time coming — a second debut.
It doesn’t take long before opener “I Am Not Afraid” makes clear Pallett’s approach to lyricism — straightforward and introspective. A particularly powerful recurring theme of In Conflict is Pallett’s inability as a gay man to procreate. “I’ll never have any children,” he laments before stepping aside for a short piano interlude that’s just begging to have a JRPG built around it.
The otherworldly influence of video games (particularly retro RPGs and Nintendo adventure games) in Pallett’s work should be expected for a man who previously composed and wrote under the moniker Final Fantasy, but it’s refreshing as a listener to hear an artist like Pallett, for whom video games act as a force of maturity rather than nostalgia for the sake of nostalgia or an opportunity to abuse cheesy chiptunes. Those virtual themes are less obvious here than in previous albums, opting instead for more personal subject matter, ostensibly inspired by The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle. Even so, Pallett has a tendency to dance around the subjects of his songs; he’s at his best when his honesty and openness shine through clearly.
In Conflict is filled to the brim with examples of a composer playing with the idea of traditional melody. The title track turns and twists around an enchanting synth line, making unexpected dips in and out of major and minor keys. Pallett seems to be constantly searching for the one note that shouldn’t fit, and then committing the song to make the note work, which makes for an engaging listen.
That creative melody is showcased in “On A Path,” which might as well be “Owen Pallett 101.” We’re treated to a name check of Ursula Le Guin’s dystopian novel, “The Dispossessed,” and an enchanting violin lead line covered by Pallett’s confident voice drifting into falsetto. Here, he sings about falling out of love with his city (Toronto) as he realizes he’s lost the friends there that have either moved out or died. It’s a starkly beautiful song and a perfect example of what Pallett can do when he chooses to ground his writing in the real world.
The immediately obvious knock on In Conflict is its overreliance on mid-tempo songs set to sweeping strings and Pallett’s internal reflective monologue. Fortunately, the end of the album treats us to an intensely violent climax in “The Riverbed,” which finds Pallett at his most bitter. “And when you wake for the sixth straight day with your Tanqueray,” he sings, “you will rise, rise again and drink again.” The song goes out in a blaze of glory, accompanied by Robbie Gordon’s heavy drums and a furious violin crescendo that constantly threatens to split at the seams.
You can’t help but feel that as a composer, Pallett builds his songs in a fundamentally different way than most other artists. In Conflict is, at its core, an exploration of that creativity, and it’s packed with evidence that he’s going to be writing important music for a long time.