With assistance from the London Contemporary Orchestra, the prolific Canadian composer’s arrangements propel dense, elliptical mythologies that unravel like fantasy novels.
The unpredictable chord changes of Owen Pallett’s orchestral-pop arrangements give way beneath you like a pulled rug. Aching piano melodies dip in and out of brass and wind sections, turning just when you least expect to play up Pallett’s quietly sturdy voice. Over the past decade, the prolific Canadian composer has offered string arrangements to Frank Ocean, Fucked Up, and even Tim Burton, who recruited Pallett and longtime collaborators Arcade Fire to contribute to last year’s Dumbo remake. On their introspective solo albums, however, Pallett’s weaving arrangements propel dense, elliptical mythologies that unravel like fantasy novels.
Their fifth album, Island, marks the return of Lewis, a “young, ultra-violent farmer” from the fictional 14th-century land of Spectrum, first introduced on 2010’s Heartland. That album’s deeply meta theological crisis centered on Lewis’ rage at a god named Owen Pallett, culminating in a bloody battle that seemingly vanquished Owen the deity for good. The gloomy world of Island picks up directly afterward: Owen is gone for now, and Lewis has washed ashore alone, enduring a grim journey of self-reflection during Pallett’s most delicately scaled-back work yet.
Heartland couched Lewis’ monologues in baroque, off-kilter pop songs that burst with life; Island is far more downcast and restrained. Pallett envisioned the album as a suite of orchestral music, recruiting lush accompaniment from the London Contemporary Orchestra to bear out the idea. The first half of the album offers murmurs of the orchestra’s full weight, with sepulchral suspended piano notes and spare acoustic guitar gently forewarning of tragedy to come. The slowed-down pace allows Pallett to lean into the folk inclinations of their early-2000s group Les Mouches, creating bounding fingerpicked guitar lines on songs like “Transformer” and “Fire-Mare” that give Lewis’ story an earthiness to match his new life as a cigarette-smoking, booze-swilling misfit.
Through the Lewis avatar, Pallett explores questions of life, death, and faith while remaining oblique. It makes for a bizarre game of interpretation, one Pallett invites both by casting themself as the omniscient creator of Spectrum and through straightforwardly vulnerable lines that recall 2014’s troubled In Conflict. As Island’s story spirals, depressive lyrics bleed through the narrative dressing. “I am a wound un-healing,” they sing in an airy upper register on “The Sound of the Engines,” when Lewis gets into a fight and wakes up in an ambulance. Album centerpiece “A Bloody Morning” depicts Lewis drunkenly crashing a sailing ship with the frank admission, “I’ve mistaken self-indulgence for self-care.” Crashing cymbals and pummeling timpani recreate the waves, while Greg Fox’s insistent drumming forms a frantic heartbeat as passengers tumble overboard. The chaotic, terrifying scene is one of Pallett’s most heart-rending, painting out Island’s narrative climax in vivid colors.
The album climaxes with “Lewis Gets Fucked Into Space,” where Lewis senses the deity Owen’s presence once again in an erotic mind-meld of the two characters. The song is a self-reckoning, ascending on tapping percussion, fanfare, and celestial strings. “I wonder who will sing of me when I am gone?” Pallett mourns, guiding Lewis to an astral sense of clarity. The album’s cinematic ending takes stock of devastation, from Lewis’ egotistical mission on Heartland to the literal wreckage of Island. “Let me be your confessor/Lay your burdens down on me,” Pallett lilts on closer “In Darkness,” a sweep of elegiac strings drifting in behind him. “You don’t need to die to be forgiven.”
These small, fastidious details add up to a tapestry that feels deeply lived-in, even if Island often lists toward the subdued or dreary. Much the album moves so subtly that the songs at times feel interchangeable, rewarding multiple revisits rather than a casual listen. But as intentionally dark and foreboding as Island can be, it gives Pallett room to breathe, clearing away the violin and piano loops that gilded In Conflict and Heartland to bring world-weary questions into focus. Its languid, ruminative pace is the time required to reveal a glimmer of hope through the gloom.