Owen Pallett’s Best Score nod for Her ranked with Elliott Smith’s among the bigger Oscar surprises of recent years. Toiling in the background as an arranger for the likes of Arcade Fire, Mountain Goats, and Pet Shop Boys, he has also released well-regarded solo albums, all of which boast a tune or filigree of note but are smothered by tentativeness and modesty. Hearing a violin sawing away at one note while Pallett sings over deluxe strings, “I am not afraid, she said, of the non-believer in me,” on “I Am Not Afraid,” comes as a most welcome shock. Warm, often inscrutable, positing adulthood as the necessary product of a fantasy-rich childhood, In Conflict is Pallett’s most realized album. There isn’t anything like it at the moment.
The album’s success is based on a confluence of factors: Pallet’s thoughtful-Muppet of a voice, Christopher Cross with a hint of dolor; a mix that foregrounds percussive intensity as much as violins and violas; lyrics comprised of narrative, observation, and bon mots. To say that Brian Eno’s contributions on guitar and synth add little to what Pallett creates himself speaks to the achievement. For the uninitiated, though, In Conflict requires adjustment. Eschewing the contours and climaxes of rock for the density and sustained equilibrium of art song, Pallett writes hymns to intellectual male beauty, valentines to lovers real and imagined, songs that approximate the density of sonnets but through music. Take “The Riverbed,” its violas and one-two drums pounding until a full-bodied string interlude pulls the song into an unexpected melodic direction while Pallett, on the “sixth straight day with Tanqueray,” denounces a “you” who may or may not be himself entering his thirties childless and uncoupled.
Crucial to In Conflict is the realizing of the title concept: the tension between the arrangements and Pallett’s droll timbre. He’s like a man realizing it’s okay to feel things. Eno’s affinities with stasis emerge most fully in “Song For Five and Six,” anchored by an arpeggiated ARP theme, but it summons Philip Glass’ Low Symphony instead of Discreet Music. It’s just a man and his keyboard for “The Passions,” a reminiscence of loving a boy who hooked his pinkies on his jeans and laid on his bed while listening to The Queen is Dead. Morose, naturally, but to take a forebear as an unflattering example, imagine the Rufus Wainwright of Want One lavishing bathos on the number to understand why the tryst ended.
Putting jumper cables to chanson requires patience, and on tracks like “Infernal Fantasy” In Conflict struggles to keep its incongruities together. But whether he’s jonesing for a cigarette he hasn’t smoked in years or distorting his yearnings through effects, Pallett is in control, and he rewards the attention: A synth patch here or a pizzicato there will appear unbidden and squat in the brain for hours. In Conflict is queer outsider art at its most fraught and compelling.