It’s been obvious, since his early days as Final Fantasy, that Owen Pallett carefully chisels out his music to the last fine-tuned detail. When listening, there is a clear sense that every detail has survived multiple drafts to remain intact. The heavy, minor-key barrages, static dynamics and claustrophobic production of his new album, In Conflict, mirror the themes and images in the songs, in which the narrator (seemingly Pallett’s most overt self-reflection to date) is repeatedly unable to find a way to move forward from a negative experience, or is shattered by the realization that he isn’t after convincing himself that he was. The only issue with In Conflict is that it doesn’t cut as deeply as it could.
On Pallett’s 2010 tour-de-force concept album Heartland, rich orchestral arrangements supported the pulsating violin and viola lines and looping keyboard riffs that define the skeletons of his songs, evoking the bleak rural landscape against which Pallett set his story. On In Conflict, he scales back the orchestra’s role in the drama. They provide unified blocks of texture and extended harmonies (occasionally eerie, promethean tone clusters) which are sliced thinly into the smooth, compressed mix.
Distilling and streamlining your sound to its core is often a good idea, but it doesn’t feel like Pallett has found “the core” on In Conflict. Sometimes Pallett’s literary, even limerick-y turns of phrase stick out uncomfortably, shortchanging his melodies; the man who once made “On the road like a Disney kid in cutoffs and a beater/ With a feathered fringe, it doesn’t suit a simonia greeter” roll off the tongue as smoothly as “It ain’t me, babe” doesn’t have the same luck with the too-precious “The rising tide of intellect/ your room a holy mess/ a copy of ‘The Dispossessed,’” even if the image is interesting.
The best section of the album is its cool center, where Pallett eschews the rest of the album’s electro-pop trappings in favor of two brooding, largely percussion-less art songs. “Chorale” is full of moody synth-French horns, shades of David Sylvian and “The Passions” resembles an Amnesiac outtake, complete with Pendereckian waterfalls of dissonant strings. Some of the more straightforward tracks like “The Secret Seven,” which recalls Hats-era Blue Nile, and fierce rocker “The Riverbed” are also carefully crafted and potent. Overall, In Conflict succeeds at its goals; Pallett followed up a sweeping orchestral score of an album with an obliquely confessional, emotionally intense and occasionally frightening set of avant-pop. The intention comes across, even if it doesn’t land as powerfully as it has in the past.