Album Review: Owen Pallett – Island

[Domino; 2020]

It’s been 10 long years since Owen Pallett left behind the fantasy world of 14th-century Spectrum that served as the backdrop of their magnum opus, Heartland. An orchestral art-pop album built around two key Barthesian thereotical conceits – love from the perspective of the loved, and the death of the author – Heartland was the apotheosis of all that Pallett had previously achieved under their erstwhile guise of Final Fantasy. It was ambitious enough in its concept, songwriting and arrangements to attract the admiration of Brian Eno, yet sufficiently accessible to win the hearts of indie fans who may have previously only known Pallett as arranger to indie-rock luminaries, Arcade Fire. For already-devoted fans, it marked their ascension to cult-indie godliness.

You could enjoy Heartland purely for its memorable hooks, playful lyricism, and stunningly beautiful soundscapes, or, if you wished to dig deeper, you could immerse yourself in the fantastical trappings of the narrative. Heartland tells the tale of hyper-violent farmer, Lewis, who becomes aware of his fictional nature, then falls in love with – and eventually turns on – his creator-god, named (you guessed it) “Owen”. Lewis kills “Owen”, then takes a whizz off a mountain. No, seriously. 

These kinds of high-falutin shenanigans were nothing new for Pallett. Their previous album, He Poos Clouds, explored the atheist response to death and suicide through a suite of songs tied thematically to schools of magic from Dungeons & Dragons. Think what you will, but that level of esotericism did not dissuade the judges from awarding He Poos Clouds the inaugural Polaris Music Prize. Pallett’s work is so dense with intra-textual allusions and metanarrative ploys that it inspires rabid internet forum theorising and lyric annotating, elaborate graphic novel treatments, and analytical essays with enough footnotes to make David Foster Wallace blush

And yet, for something that, on paper, sounds like a cross between a recital at Juilliard and a D&D night with the young cast of Stranger Things, there is a unique emotional alchemy that Pallett is able to perform. The attempt at obfuscation through elaborate framing devices, esoteric lyrics, and baroque instrumentation, only makes the moments of unguarded vulnerability hit more deeply and painfully. On a song from their understated debut, Has A Good Home, Pallett explained their modus operandi: “any song from a heart this mangled / will be drenched in strings.”

Pallett’s last album, 2014’s In Conflict, dissected that mangled heart further through what appeared to be a more personally revealing, quasi-autobiographical approach to lyric writing. The album also stripped back their instrumentation enough to foreground the purity of their melodicism, as well as the growing power of their voice to carry it. In Conflict seemed to represent a new course for Owen Pallett – but a return to the “Lewis Saga” was always on the cards. It was telegraphed in the unresolved chord at the end of Heartland’s final track, “What Do You Think Will Happen Now?” and eventually confirmed by the man himself on social media.

We’ve known that the album was to be called Island since 2015, and it was reportedly more or less finished in 2017. Commitments and distractions, both professional and personal, have conspired to delay the LP’s release. And now, there’s a certain poeticism to an album called Island being bestowed upon us, with zero promotional rollout, at a time when we have become de facto islands unto ourselves. 

After years of anticipation, Pallett keeps us waiting a little longer with the album’s scene-setting prologue: mournful piano chords ring out in slow motion for a solid three minutes, the sound of waking from a deep dream, brought on by exhausting travels. Lewis has left Spectrum for the titular Island, and soon we will come to leave behind our preconceived notions of what an Owen Pallett album should sound like.

Album opener proper, “Transformer”, sails in on a bed of finger-picked acoustic guitar that immediately brings Nick Drake’s Pink Moon to mind. Multiple guitar lines variously converge and misalign to create a disorientating effect that initially made me think I was playing the album in two different browser windows. If In Conflict felt relatively stripped back, this is positively skeletal. The album’s nine songs were reportedly written on acoustic guitar, before being reworked for a full orchestra, without any mind being paid to how Pallett would recreate the effect in a live setting. An acoustic session from late last year presents four of these compositions without any adornment whatsoever; they recall some of Pallett’s earliest work on Has A Good Home and the Les Mouches album, You’re Worth More To Me Than 1000 Christians.

Pallett made their name with the dazzling, near-savant, juggling-act virtuosity of their live shows, which involve conjuring elaborate compositions into being with just a mic, a violin and their array of loop pedals. By ceding so much of their sound over to the largest ensemble he’s ever worked with, the London Contemporary Orchestra, Pallett seems almost to be denying key elements of their artistic voice, surrendering their showmanship in service of the grander vision. Of course, the “author” was removed at the violent denouement of Heartland, so it’s almost certainly a consciously symbolic choice. And it’s no accident that piercing, melodic violin leads become more prominent on Island as the deity figure of “Owen” becomes more of a focus in the story.

“This place is a narrative mess,” was a particularly memorable lyric off Heartland; it served both as a knowing wink and as some fairly unabashed lampshading of the fact that the storyline was difficult to follow for the casual listener. The same is true of Island; knowing who is narrating at any point is not easy to discern, but given that Lewis and “Owen” essentially represent aspects of Pallett himself, it doesn’t really matter. But, for those inclined to read deeper, there are many details and references back to the couple of dozen songs in the “Lewis Saga” that have led up to this point.

What really strikes you upon listening to Island is the cinematic sweep of its overall structure. In Conflict found Pallett deliberately circumventing conventions of sequencing by removing segues and switching around the tracklisting to create a sense of discontinuity. Conversely, Island bears the influence of Pallett’s forays into modern classical and soundtrack composition; this doesn’t feel like a mere collection of separate songs with each containing its own crescendo. 

Instead, the album builds slowly but surely through its first two thirds. The chamber-folk of “Transformer” and “The Sound of Engines” captivates with tasteful orchestral augmentation and unresolved tension. “Paragon of Order” pairs jazzy drums with triumphantly trilling flutes to herald the fact that Lewis, the “God-killer”, is alive. The close-mic’d hammers of the prepared piano on “Perseverance of the Saints” recall both the final track of Heartland and a song like “Bells for Her” by acknowledged influence Tori Amos, and the song eventually blooms into something grandly sweeping like Björk’s “Jóga”. There’s a deep and resigned sadness to Pallett’s voice across the first long section of Island that had me concerned for their state of mind, and rounding out this sombre opening portion is “Polar Vortex”, where jaunty intertwining piano and guitar melodies of stand at odds with its portentous warning that “Madness is a man among us, oh / You will let the madness in.”

And let it in, they do. Striking a level of dramatic excess that Hans Zimmer would be proud of, “A Bloody Morning” bursts into the album like a storm raging at sea. A spiritual sequel to In Conflict’s “The Riverbed”, the song straddles towering waves of booming cello, while Greg Fox’s drumming clatters along as if he’s on a ship being buffeted by roiling tumult. With eerie prescience, Pallett sings that “surely some disaster will descend and equalize us” and, for the first time on the record, their vocals sound genuinely impassioned. 

For many listeners, “A Bloody Morning” will feel like a hard-earned crescendo after 25 minutes of relatively uneventful (but undeniably gorgeous) acoustic numbers. The understated approach the record takes could well be patience-testing for all but the most invested of fans; nevertheless, I beseech you to give the record the time it demands. Pallett is working in a less-immediately-gratifying mode on Island, and the case could be made that the album is back-loaded with its best tracks, but it’s all in service of the emotional arc of the record as a whole. 

“Fire-mare” is a thing of impossible beauty; the already infamous “Lewis Gets Fucked Into Space” is the most sumptuously homoerotic and romantic song ever written from the perspective of a man being expelled into the void of space through divine copulation; and closer, “In Darkness”, imagines Lewis floating through the universe considering the nature of forgiveness, and the percussion-free, zero-g orchestration matches the grand loneliness of the conceit. It’s here where Pallett distills what has come before on Island into one subtly devastating line, which sucks you in with the gravitational pull of a black hole: “You don’t need to die to be forgiven.” Emotional alchemy.

Pallett has never shied away from heavy subject matter, and suicide is a recurrent theme in their work. As someone who has suffered intense periods of suicidal ideation and low self-worth, there’s profound resonance for me in an expression of the notion that giving up one’s life as atonement for self-perceived failings is a fallacy. On Island, Pallett reaffirms their status as a special brand of artist. With their compositional flair they can inspire you to bone up on music theory, whilst simultaneously, with a flash of their writerly pen, have the ability to break, rebuild and strengthen your heart.