Owen Pallett is well aware of the hubris inherent in linking himself to Brian Wilson. For some, the surf-rock sphinx is an overrated figure in the pantheon of ’60s pop, his talent long since lost to mental illness. Others consider Wilson the true heir to the Great American Songbook, as well as the personification of California sunshine. But whether you think Wilson’s a babbling has-been or a golden god, there’s no denying that Pallett has yet to rival the original Beach Boy’s career.
The Toronto-based musician and the L.A. recluse have one thing in common, however, in that they’re both quick to feel that their work has been misunderstood. Even if Pallett steers shy of comparing his new full-length, In Conflict, to Wilson’s self-sabotaged masterpiece, Smile, he volunteers a connection not long after the Georgia Straight reaches him at a Boston, Massachusetts, hotel.
“There’s one particular Brian Wilson quote resonating when it comes to In Conflict,” the singer, composer, and violin virtuoso says, sounding rather melancholy. “When he was asked about Smile in, like, the ’70s or something, his face just darkened and he said, ‘There’s no place in this world for that kind of music.’ And when I was completing In Conflict, I felt the exact same way. I was like, ‘There’s no reason this album needed to exist.’ ”
If Pallett sounds like he’s been brooding, that’s probably because he has. He spent much of this summer playing violin in Arcade Fire, and although he’s grateful for the work, the routines of the road have included too many lonely mornings in too many anonymous hotels.
“Once I get off the Arcade Fire tour, I can guarantee this big depression will lift,” he says, brightening at the thought of beginning his own tour and playing his own music. “That’s absolutely no disparagement against the band or the people in it. The people in this band are the greatest. They’re my dearest and closest friends, and I really, really love the music, and the show is really, really strong. It’s just that the position of playing invisible sideman offers me no release.”
Pallett admits that during his idle hours he’s been puzzling over what he sees as the lukewarm reception that In Conflict has received, although we’re not sure why this bothers him: for every knock there’s been a corresponding rave. But it might have something to do with his own belief that his first proper solo release is a far more accessible effort than its sprawling, mythic predecessor, Heartland.
“I was really trying to feel more human, and to sing as a fellow human to people,” he says. “I was trying to remove the quotations around my words and just really speak from the heart with this record—and, hopefully, identify with people on a human-to-human basis, as opposed to a musician-to-consumer basis. Does that make any sense?
“It’s just incredibly difficult for me to talk about this,” he continues. “I mean, I really kind of sacrificed a great deal of my psyche to make this record, and some of the responses to it kind of made me go to bed for a week. I don’t really know what to say.”
Perhaps Pallett simply did his job too well. In Conflict is well-named, for almost every song is a prismatic examination of a dilemma. Despite Pallett’s rich orchestrations—and swelling backing vocals arranged, in part, by the masterful Brian Eno—the record is far from easy listening. The music incorporates some familiar tropes, from neo-Baroque horn chorales to surging electronic rock, but a disquieting degree of irony or ambivalence is built into almost every lyric. Even when the narrator is being seduced by a handsome boy, in “The Passions”, the younger lover’s choice of a Smiths soundtrack is called into question. And if “Owen Pallett”, in quotes, was the omniscient god of Heartland’s meta-narrative, Owen Pallett, without quotes, is singing here, sometimes to himself. “Owen, why must you always be first to wake and first to fight, first to wound and first to fly?” he muses in “The Sky Behind the Flag”. “I need to lose control, why can’t I lose control?”
Pallett says that this newfound transparency was partially inspired by assisting poet, novelist, and Mountain Goats songwriter John Darnielle. “I was seeing the way he was able to turn his life events into songs from beginning to end,” he explains. “Like, I was there while something happened, and then I saw him writing the song, and then I saw him playing the song for me on the piano in his house, and then I heard it on the record. I was kind of impressed by the industrial way he was doing this, and tried to do the same with my life, where I would take something that happened—whether to me or to someone else—and then kind of rearrange it but without dressing it up too much. You could go, ‘Oh, well, that’s just songwriting,’ but when you look at lyrics, actually look at what people sing about, it’s not all that common to just retell life experiences or odd biographical moments and try and frame them in universal terms.”
The pressure of being open, he adds, was so intense that as soon as In Conflict was done he went directly into therapy, a topic he doesn’t want to say much more about. “This is so hard, man! I just want to sell tickets to my concert!” he admits, adding a wild laugh. But at least Pallett is taking steps to cure whatever ails him—a far better plan, we think, than joining Brian Wilson in the sandbox.
Owen Pallett plays the Imperial on Tuesday (September 9).