Owen Pallett has always walked an unusual path between the classical and the modern. His songs use strings and orchestral instrumentation to suggest pop symphonies, but Pallett loops and twists those sounds into endless repetition, suggesting the world of electronic music. Melodies emerge fitfully, sometimes on the fifth or sixth listen, and they might flit away just as quickly, only to re-engage the brain years later, as half-remembered snippets of something long gone. When Pallett’s music works, as it does more often than not, it’s on the level of the subconscious. He crafts his songs to very nearly trick the listener into embedding them deep into the memory. These songs are artifacts to be excavated later.
That’s never been truer than on In Conflict, a strong contender for his best album yet. Here, those repetitive orchestral riffs become not just a part of the soundbed but the underlying tension of the whole album. In Conflict’s lyrics focus the listener on narrators who have crossed the threshold that is 30 and find that life stubbornly keeps aging them. “I’ll never have any children,” sings Pallett on majestic opening track “I Am Not Afraid,” and it’s not clear whether that’s triumph or heartbreak. More likely, it’s both. But at all times, those orchestral bursts roll onward and onward, clouds rotating through the sky on an endless loop. The suggestion seems almost primal: Whoever is singing these songs, they’re trapped in that loop as well, the only thing changing around them everybody else and the inevitable aging of their own bodies.
In Conflict is not strictly an album about “turning 30” or anything like that, but it is constantly taking notice of how much things have shifted while Pallett hasn’t been paying attention. “You live in a city that you don’t know anymore,” he sings on the third track, “On A Path,” and it seems a crystallizing notion for the whole album. Things that can be counted on as landmarks drift away and erode. The only thing that’s always present is the self, and the more one realizes that (and the more one realizes the traps inherent in those endless, repetitive cycles), the more disappointing that fact becomes. Nothing is forever, but you’re always stuck with yourself. Pallett has always crafted emotionally rich songs, but he seemed on previous albums to be trying to worm his way into listeners’ heads via inventive cleverness. On In Conflict, he seems much more comfortable taking aim at the gut.