If you’ve listened to fairly popular music over the past five years, you’ve probably heard Owen Pallett’s strings. The prolific violinist and composer has collaborated with Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear, The National, Taylor Swift and a host of other big acts. Although he released his first solo effort, Heartland, in 2010, he’s known best for his artistry with the violin.
It is therefore no surprise when In Conflict opens with taut strings on the opener “I Am Not Afraid.” It sets the tone for an album that will continually turn to Pallett’s classical background where the arrangements are lush and labored over. The song itself is well written, featuring some strikingly honest lyrics. If it feels intense, get used to it: this is a record that doesn’t hold back and feels constantly in search of something profound. While “I Am Not Afraid” is a strong start, the subtle compositional shifts feel at times too subtle and the songs can begin to blend into one another as the album develops.
Just about all of In Conflict is pretty and demands a careful ear that will pick up on the interesting sonic moments that are occurring beneath the surface. It cannot help but feel a bit exhausting, though. And while Pallett is pouring all of himself into this record, the demands put on the listening make it a record that you aren’t necessarily running back to.
That said, in the moments where Pallett becomes a bit more playful and loose, the album reaches a fairly transcendent point. For instance, “Infernal Fantasy” has a bit of a Sufjan Stevens vibe in its theatricality. It’s about the only track here that I kept coming back to. While other tracks, such as “The Riverbed” and “On A Path” are undoubtedly worth admiring, “Infernal Fantasy” is a track worth loving. It’s still grandiose and meticulously arranged, but it lets the listener breathe a bit more when compared to tracks earlier in the album.
Pallett certainly challenges the listener and has created an album that is both thematically and instrumentally ambitious. But I cannot help but feel a bit of distance on this record and long for material from Pallett that is more loose.