PRIMER is an ongoing, introductory guide to the varied and often elusive careers of iconic artists.
Owen Pallett’s fourth album, In Conflict, is officially out today. The formerly-Toronto-now-Montreal based violin looper/songwriter has said he's made a clearer effort to write more candidly and from his own life, a decision that has led some critics into the trap of reading it as pure autobiography. If you've been following Pallett, either as a solo artist or as a frequent collaborator with the likes of Arcade Fire, The National, Taylor Swift and Spike Jonze, you'd know that approach is a dead end. Not that there's a clear, simple path; It seems against his very nature to suggest there’s one single overarching narrative throughout everything he’s done.
With that in mind, we thought we’d highlight two compelling sides to Pallett’s work that reveal a great deal about the path he’s followed to arrive at In Conflict: his long history of collaboration on material outside his solo work, and the way in which his own songs have been guiding listeners away from interpreting solely for any autobiographical details. If you're new to his world, this should help catch you up.
Owen Pallett has suggested in interviews that his work as an arranger and frequent collaborator comes first, and is what he enjoys most about being a musician. While it's tempting to section off his for-hire arrangement work from his solo albums (especially the poppier stuff — one of his most despised interview questions is the classist high-art/low-art distinction), his collaborations have undoubtedly had a significant impact on the shape of his career. As you'll see, you don't have to search for the albums credited solely to him to trace his evolution.
Traffic Department 2192 (as Michael Pallett), “Vulture” (1994)
Having played the violin since age three, it’s little surprise that Pallett’s first recorded work came by the time he was thirteen. Traffic Department 2192 was a video game that was primarily scored by Robert A. Allen, though it also included works that Owen and his older brother John wrote. “Vulture” is credited solely to Owen, then still going by his birth name Michael. This early work on a video game score anticipates his later albums as Final Fantasy where the worlds inside video games become a playground for Pallett and the characters in his songs.
The Hidden Cameras, "Golden Streams" (2003)
Though they’ve been neglected by history, The Hidden Cameras were arguably one of the single most important bands in Toronto in the early 2000s. “Golden Streams,” off of the record The Smell of Our Own, is as celebratory and fun as the band’s reputation suggests, and much of that sound can be accredited here to the strings, which are as gilded as ever. In addition to Pallett's strings and arrangements, The Smell of Our Own also includes performances by Reg Vermue, Magali Meagher, Bob Wiseman and Jim Guthrie — a solid document of a fertile period in Toronto's musical history.
Les Mouches, “Divorce the Ones You Love” (2004)
Before going solo, Pallett was in Les Mouches. “Divorce the Ones You Love” is from the band’s only full-length record. The song is mostly guitar-based, but vocally not too far off from the melodic styles we’d hear later on Final Fantasy’s debut. “Divorce” gives a strong impression of where Les Mouches were musically at the time, how volatile and unpredictable they could be. This collaboration is perhaps even more significant because, while the band would break up later on that year, drummer Rob Gordon (also of The Creeping Nobodies) and bassist Matt Smith (aka Matt Smif, aka Nif-d, aka Nifty, aka Prince Nifty) would rejoin Pallett as his live band in 2010 as the more robust arrangements from Heartland would demand.
Arcade Fire, "Rebellion (Lies)" (2004)
This is the song that catapulted both Arcade Fire and their good friend Owen Pallett into the world of popular music. Pallett recorded his first solo record, Has A Good Home, so that he’d have something to sell while on tour with Arcade Fire in 2005. His arrangement work with Sarah Neufeld throughout Funeral is nothing short of stunning. Here, on “Rebellion (Lies)” there’s a siren-like hum in the background of the song that sounds eerily like a single note being played on a violin indefinitely. Toward the end, the violin carries a new melody and sustains what is essentially the climax of the song.
The Mountain Goats, “Hebrews 11:40” (2009)
From The Life of the World to Come, “Hebrews 11:40” is an excellent example of how much Pallett’s string work can add to a song. It wakes and flutters beneath the line “no ground is ever gonna hold me,” and continues to carry the song upward. This record marks the first of many collaborations between John Darnielle and Pallett, who would later play together intermittently as part of live incarnation of The Mountain Goats.
Pallett has also recently admitted that Darnielle’s more candid lyrical style was a significant influence on how he approached writing his own words for In Conflict. That influence seems somewhat prescient considering the album’s focus on gender identity, and the connection critic Carl Wilson recently made between Darnielle’s style and Laura Jane Grace’s on Transgender Dysphoria Blues.
When it comes to his solo work, Pallett has been carefully teaching his listeners how to approach his music via his lyrics since day one. Rule #1, don’t trust a single word he sings. He is an unreliable narrator, and although his words might have an air of truth to them, they also involve a lot of fancy. Just don’t trust the guy. (His first name isn’t even Owen! Sadly, he falls into a long line of musicians who’ve renounced the name Michael, but I digress.) While In Conflict might be drawn from more autobiographical moments, Pallett has routinely encouraged his listeners not to mistake the Owen of his music for IRL Owen. These four songs help suggest why.
Final Fantasy, “This Is The Dream Of Win & Regine” (2005)
This song is the first of many playful jabs in Pallett’s work directed at his friends in Arcade Fire. The title mocks the title of the Dntel song (and Postal Service blueprint) “This Is The Dream of Evan and Chan,” casting Arcade Fire’s husband-and-wife Win Butler and Régine Chassagne as its leads. The song is loosely based on something that actually happened — the backlash Arcade Fire started to see in Montréal once they got popular — but twists the story by imagining things from Butler’s perspective. The mocking distance established via the song’s title is further reinforced throughout, with Pallett singing lines like: “But what if they like it/ And lock us in a cannery with your accordion/ Until we can our love?/ We can get along!”
Final Fantasy,“He Poos Clouds” (2006)
This title track served to be the model for the ideas Pallett would explore in further detail on Heartland — namely having full control over a character of his own design. This song imagines what a character in a RPG might think of the strong feelings of attachment the person playing the game has for them, especially after investing so much time. Once again, Pallett takes something that could be read as autobiographical, and pulls it into a world of fantasy. Viewed outside the lens of Pallett’s clear love for videogames, the song becomes a metaphor for power dynamics in a relationship and how people often project their own ideas and expectations onto their loved ones, maybe even more so when that love cannot be reciprocated.
Owen Pallett, “Oh Heartland, Up Yours!” (2010)
The title of this track from Heartland is a modification of an X-Ray Spex song title, swapping the word “bondage” for “heartland.” Within the scope of the album, the word “heartland” refers to the fictional town of Spectrum, but it could just as easily refer to Pallett’s own heartland, Canada. The Mississaugan in me hopes that the word is used in reference to something equally sinister.
Briefly, the narrative of Heartland follows the character Lewis, who upon realizing that he is just a character in an Owen Pallett song, simply a composite of all the things the author is not, breaks free and kills Owen. So not only is the author dead, his character is the inverse of a mirror. Lewis’ autonomy is Pallett’s way of encouraging his listeners to think outside the life of Owen Pallett. This specific song finds Lewis in his moment of defiance, having completed all his tasks, but lacking any kind of finality or sense of accomplishment one might typically have. Meanwhile, Owen is nowhere to be found; his trademark violin is notably silent throughout the entire song.
Owen Pallett, “The Riverbed” (2014)
Upon first listen, the candid nature of “The Riverbed”s lyrics might cause one to stop and linger on the idea of whether or not Pallett is or is close to an alcoholic, but in the context of his larger body of work we know not to stop there. The narrator of the song describes someone careening towards emptiness, a “breach,” one not unlike the ink blot interruption depicted on In Conflict’s cover art. That artwork, which suggests there’s a piece of the puzzle that we’re missing, that we’ll always be missing, prompts the listener to work with what the song gives them rather than dwell on what exists outside of it.