Music Reviews

Owen Pallett Island

(Domino) Rating - 10/10

Owen Pallett wrote a record five years ago. They finally released the album this year. Island has ten songs, four interludes, and two bonus tracks. If you listen to it twenty times, you still find something new. The first music video released from the album was recorded during the COVID lockdown. The video was shot through windows. It shows people dancing in their houses. The video is heavy.

But that's just the surface of what's going on here. Owen Pallett, who usually writes with his trusty violin, composed Island on guitar. From track two onward, Pallett's acoustic guitar is present throughout, accompanied by the London Contemporary Orchestra. Pallett chose that elite group on Canadian film director Stephen Dunn's advice that “If you’re making a movie and you’ve got the option between casting Andy Garcia or Al Pacino, you don’t go with Andy Garcia.” Recorded at Abbey Road Studios, the music provides the backdrop for lyrics about a guy, Lewis, who narrates episodes of his weary life. Here we need to mention that Island is the sequel to Pallett's 2010 concept album,  Heartland, about that same guy. On a surface level, I didn't really understand the narrative on Heartland, and I don't on this one either, though I did pick out some details: Island's early tracks reference birth and childhood: “My mother tells me I wasn't born so much as excreted” / “Tires of our bikes on wet cement, sparklers in the night.” Much later, there's a confrontation with a deity named Owen: “Owen are you there? End this nightmare I'm in.” Somewhere in between childhood and a conversation with God, the narrator wakes up in an ambulance. As for an open-and-closed reading of the lyrics, I'm lost.

But really, in spite of not understanding the lyrical quotient of Pallett's endeavor, I am vaguely aware that their scope is broader than anything revealed by a literal reading of lyrics. The first hint of Pallett's feverish ambition is that the orchestral music, present throughout as a sonically sophisticated counterpoint to the simplicity of the acoustic guitar, is not your typical token backdrop à la the cringe-inducing employment of strings as faux-gravitas used by any number of bands—if I had more paper I'd use this as a moment to lambaste The National—but rather shares genes with John Adams' discordantly, big and folky, complicated yet minimal, modern Americana classical music and its monolithic conjunctions (Nixon/China, Dharma/Big Sur, Road Movies) or even Penderecki's sonorism via Johnny Greenwood. But that's just what I hear; Pallett cites many more as influences, such as Arca's “queer” writing, Grouper's evasiveness, and Charles Ives' bitonality. The entirety of Island rides on increasingly dissonant waves of strings, amplifying the narrator's collapsing mental state through a panorama of frost-encrusted fields, shuddered by gusts and the icy sleet of strings along with brass and woodwind exploring subterranean timbres—and all without Pallett employing a single electronic instrument.

Considering the avant-garde associations suggested by Island's sonics, it makes sense to weigh the lyrics according to the same, progressive metrics, allowing that the words exist not as prose narrative but as poetic abstractions standing in for more universal meanings, in which case the lyrics scan not as fanciful art-rock but something more akin to a Benjamin Britten libretto, equally storm-trodden and queer, extrapolating present moments through a flux of memory penduluming between adolescence and obsolescence, while asserting that those two points on a human's timeline somehow coexist, overlap, mirror each other, and, as a result, provide a reflection for the listener; a deep, cosmic insight into their own life, into my own life, like staring into a bottomless pit, seeing oneself in the charcoaled chasm, then retreating to the teat, evoking a feeling akin to Becket's assertion about life that humans are “[birthed] astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more.”

Then, possibly, this too is an oversimplification of Island, whose content, for one thing, invites speculation that the composer may have originally toyed with the title Earth. But Pallett—understanding that John Donne's most famous saying was an apt existential correlative to an album in which the narrator's mythos is simultaneously expressed by Pallett's isolated if multi-emotional timbre and their acoustic guitar plucking, while also overlaid by a collective of classical musicians that is both at odds with the lone guitar, complements the guitar with a paradoxically dissonant harmony and plays grandiose antagonist to the fragility of the acoustic guitar and the fragility of Pallett's voice—chose the title Island because these thirteen tracks build, like a landmass birthed by volcanism, to the inevitable climax of a single song, Bloody Morning. Not coincidentally, that track, whose climax embodies the eight tracks that came before, while offering a banquet of additional inventiveness, such as, to give one example, the algebraic drumming by Greg Fox of Liturgy, is the track Pallett found most difficult to write.  

In fact, Pallett’s struggle to complete Bloody Morning is what kept Island shuttered for the last five years, though it also provided backing to Island’s first music video. The video was made after some reluctance by Pallett, who felt the idea of filming people during quarantine through their windows was gimmicky (“I worried that the video would end up pornographing the quarantine, and I declined”), but later relented and was appeased by the final product, which, when you think about it, could suggest the deep and rigorous conceptual leaps this album attempts could be accused of gimmickry as well until we follow that trail to the ultimate realization that labeling something as gimmicky is occasionally an introvert's humble brag about their own ingenuity or insight.

Additionally, we find Pallett's delicate voice to be not so delicate after all on A Bloody Morning, but instead, a scaffold which, it turns out, has been carrying all of Island's potential—like the lone footprints in the sand—potential hinted at but elusive until, BAM, we reach A Bloody Morning and Pallett evokes a half dozen ineffable emotional palettes at once: warmth, chills, nostalgia, bitterness, worry, hope, and alienation. The cohabitation of those emotions mirrors the song's—and retroactively the album's—paradoxical dissonance/harmony and solo/orchestral framework, and miraculously asserts that Island, as a concept album, can be interpreted lyrically, musically, texturally, and diegetically as an overdetermined exploration of, to give an inadequate list, morning to night, birth to death, the microcosms to the galactic, the human to the immortal, from sin to redemption, and all of that, all of that, at once.  [Believe the Hype]