Suggesting that a work of art “wrestles with the human condition” has been a trope in arts criticism for at least as long as I’ve been alive. The description is applied too liberally, often rendering it meaningless. Still, there’s no way around invoking it with regard to the composer Owen Pallett’s remarkable new album, In Conflict. Musically, as we’ve come to expect from him, Pallett flies high here, orchestrating effervescent passages built around strings, analog synthesizers and a fantastic rhythm section of electric bass and drums, all of which blend, dissipate and soar at just the right moments. Pallett could not be more precise if he tried. But what really catalyzes the quality of In Conflict is his vivid, off-beat storytelling, which Pallett employs to detail empathetic scenes of humans tussling with each other and themselves. While artists like St. Vincent and Arcade Fire (with whom the composer regularly collaborates) have recently issued biting meditations on the nature of identity in the social media age, Pallett assumes a stance less stuck to time and place: Humans have and always will suss through the detritus of each other’s manias and dependencies and will never stop facing the choice of whether to comfort or flee in the face of them.
Not counting his work with Arcade Fire on the Grammy-nominated soundtrack for Her, In Conflict is Pallett’s first album since 2010’s Heartland, and the second released under his own name after retiring the more whimsical project Final Fantasy. Like Heartland, In Conflict is often a dizzyingly impressive musical feat, combining classical, pop and electronic composition in a manner that feels effortless.
It’s not, of course: Pallett wrote and produced nearly everything on the record, and worked with the Czech FILMHarmonic Orchestra in Prague and the ambient music pioneer Brian Eno, among others, suggesting he’s both meticulous and not risk-averse. I imagine it takes Silicon Valley confidence to walk into a room with those people and demand the sort of results Pallett garnered here.
Heartland and In Conflict share their creator’s touch, but the latter distinguishes itself by featuring more electronic instrumentation and lyrics that bear a personal relationship to Pallett, whether in literal or composite form. Together the approaches make the new effort a more emotionally visceral album than its predecessor, at least as far as this writer is concerned. I appreciate a good concept album, but Heartland’s “young, ultra-violent farmer” ultimately means less to me than the broken souls of In Conflict, who comfort each other while hope wanes, or listen to The Smiths in the midst of a confusing romantic encounter where intentions are opaque. Such is the case in “The Passions,” as trilling strings rise and fall behind a wistful synth melody, Pallett singing “compassion, compassion” almost liturgically. Struggle is everywhere here, but it takes no effort to see the pain and empathy Pallett strives to convey.
There’s perhaps no more direct example of the songwriter’s charity than when Pallett gives out his phone number as “The Secret Seven” winds to a close. “If your mother doesn’t answer then give me a call,” Pallett sings as strings waft and the beat plods along, “854-4784.” Or maybe it’s during the tangled rocker “The Riverbed,” when Pallett consoles a friend who appears to be on the verge of losing it all: “Out of work, out of house, out of your mind, lay your head, lay your heart next to mine.” Music this complex risks alienating all but a handful of high-minded aesthetes, but Pallett consistently does a remarkable job of detailing something universal here—our worst behaviors are somewhat inevitable, I suppose, but grace is more often a choice. So it goes with trusting someone as accomplished as Pallett. It took a few listens for In Conflict to really hit, but, like a friendship that grows deeper with time, I can’t imagine not having the album around now.