On his surprise new album, Island, it feels — for the first time in ages — like Owen Pallett is doing exactly what he wants.
If there’s one thing that has remained consistent throughout Owen Pallett’s career under his own name and as Final Fantasy, it’s that he never seems to be satisfied with what he’s created. At his live shows, he rarely plays anything from his debut Has a Good Home; he didn’t think he deserved to win the first-ever Polaris Music Prize for He Poos Clouds; he fretted a lot about how he was going to perform the songs off Heartland live; his most intensely personal album to date, In Conflict, feels “less truthful” to him now, according to press material. That’s why his latest release, Island, feels — for the first time in ages — like Pallett is doing exactly what he wants.
In the months and years following the release of In Conflict, Pallett explained to audiences at shows that he was starting to write songs on the acoustic guitar, ostensibly hoping to discover greater emotional truths. This decision came at least partially from his admiration of Jennifer Castle (and let’s be honest, few artists can make simple acoustic guitar songs resonate with emotion and urgency as well as she can). Though his composition process changed, the subject of his new songs is an old friend: Lewis, the ultra-violent farmer of Heartland.
By the end of that album, Lewis has scaled Mount Alpentine and killed his creator and his love, the deity Owen. Island begins with both Lewis and Owen Pallett in new surroundings; gone are the electronic flourishes of Heartland and In Conflict. Instead, the album is almost entirely acoustic and recorded with the London Contemporary Orchestra. There are moments of contemplation quieter than anything Pallett has done in some time, but —particularly towards the latter half of the album — Pallett shows that he still knows how to compose songs that gets the blood rushing like past classics “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” or “Infernal Fantasy”.
Piecing together the story of Lewis from Pallett’s dense, literary lyrics will take repeated listens, but in broad strokes, Lewis washes up on an island and begins ruminating on the past while hoping for oblivion. Though Pallett has an entire orchestra at his disposal, songs like album opener “Transformer” contain barely more than a fingerpicked guitar and his voice. As Lewis begins to think about his past, he remembers, “My mother tells me I wasn’t born so much as excreted,” immediately signalling that Lewis will not find happiness on this album. On “Paragon of Order”, Pallett begins to incorporate piano and strings as more details of Lewis’ new life unfurl — he’s no longer farming, just smoking and drinking, and praying to the sea for something. Lewis describes himself as “a wound un-healing” on the tender “The Sound of the Engines” as he alternates between affirmations of strength (“My body is wider and stronger than collapsing buildings”) and weakness (“Woke up in an ambulance/Beaten and bleeding”).
On “Perseverance of the Saints”, a song backed by gorgeous piano, Lewis reframes his killing of Owen: “When I started to feel like I believed in a lie/I climbed up a mountain to get my dues/Nobody wanted him dead.” The acoustic guitar-driven “Polar Vortex” drives home that “madness is a man/You will let the madness in.” From here, we reach the climax of the album.
“A Bloody Morning” is an orchestra in a tempest with a ferocity to mirror the horrific events of the song: thunderous percussion wars with a stirring string section. Steering the ship that Lewis used to leave his home of Spectrum becomes monotonous to him, so he begins drinking on the job. “I’ve mistaken self-indulgence for self-care”, Lewis notes before the ship promptly crashes and kills nearly everyone onboard. Pallett shows off his composition skills in “Fire-Mare” (the name first appearing all the way back in “This Lamb Sells Condos”), with gorgeous guitar-playing evocative of his inspiration, Jennifer Castle. The way strings begin to surge forward as Pallett sings “Can it be controlled?” makes for wonderful synergy, and the imagery of fire mirrors Lewis’ need to purify himself.
That purification will not come, however. Something changes for Lewis in “Lewis Gets Fucked Into Space”, but just as he begins to realize something important, he gets, well, fucked into space. We end with “In Darkness,” a longer composition with fewer lyrics and more stretches of instrumental gloom. This could be the end of Lewis forever; but quite honestly, I would be into a return called Lewis in Space!, and only Pallett could make such subject matter not seem ridiculous.
Island is, like every solo Owen Pallett album, vastly different than what came before it. There is much to be contemplated and digested, but Pallett seems to be at his most confident. His arrangements have never been simple, but never until now have his complex arrangements felt so natural and at harmony with his lyrics. On “Transformer”, he sings: “I think I’ve found the cure: Make sure you’re living a quarter of your waking life in the present.” Perhaps these songs are more “truthful” because Pallett is no longer lingering in the past (like In Conflict) or thinking about the future (how the songs will be played). Instead, he’s focusing on the present: the continuing life of his beautiful, self-destructive farmer and said farmer’s meditations on life. Pallett’s already saying he doesn’t know what comes next, but I have no doubt it will be a further reinvention of his sound. He will never be satisfied with his work, but if I may be so bold, Pallett should be plenty satisfied with the beauty of his Island.