Published May 22, 2020At this point in his career, Owen Pallett has quietly done it all, earning a deep respect and becoming a highly sought-after collaborator, working with both his peers and international pop stars. From being the long-time strings player with Arcade Fire and providing orchestral arrangements for a massive range of artists like Taylor Swift, Linkin Park, Pet Shop Boys, Fucked Up, and everything in between, to co-writing the Oscar-nominated soundtrack for Spike Jonze's film Her, Pallett doesn't like to shine the spotlight on himself very often.
Nearly six years since his last album, Pallett returns with his fifth full-length, Island, a record that exists in a lavish fantasy world built upon identity struggles and perfectly ripe orchestrations – qualities we have come to expect from the multi-instrumentalist. Pallett's first work as Final Fantasy spawned whimsical imagery full of trembling desires and forbidden fruit, and Heartland and In Conflict showed off his musical wizardry with sharp percussion and flittering electronics. On Island, Pallett scales back his baroque-pop by nurturing subtle tonal changes and gently kneads them into life.
Island loosely continues the story of Lewis, a violent farmer originally introduced on Heartland, who is grappling with a sense of lost purpose and a miserable existence. This time, Lewis is stranded on a peculiar island, shifting in and out of confused consciousness and dream-like visions. There is a feeling of lightness and resolve throughout the album, dotted with flowering acoustic guitar on songs like "Transformer," with Pallett singing, "This emptiness is a gift, I'm free to write the future, an empty man undefeated" — words that speak to a certain level of acceptance of an imperfect but fulfilling life.
Pallett's trusty violin, featured so prominently on 2006's Polaris Prize-winning album He Poos Clouds isn't the focal point on Island, which is instead occupied with long-sustained piano strokes and finger-picked acoustic guitar. On "Paragon of Order," Pallett's deliverance of hopefulness is illuminated with a silvery grandiosity earmarked with strings and woodwinds courtesy of the London Contemporary Orchestra. Similarly, "Polar Vortex" is thoughtfully distilled by Pallett's ever-youthful, classically trained voice and crystal-clear guitar.
Island's abundance of space and clarity make Pallett's melancholic wisdom so gorgeously apparent with four wistful instrumental interludes, every chord gracefully percolating these feelings with beautiful realization. On the other side of the spectrum, "A Bloody Morning" serves as Island's sonic high, driven by trotting drums and bellowing strings alluding to Lewis's stormy path before violently washing up on the island's shores.
Island generally stays unassumingly low and grounded until "Lewis Gets Fucked into Space" — a song that carries Pallett's enduringly cheeky sense of humour with a loving nod to his earlier work.
Over the two decades of his career, Pallett has created great, expansive worlds — and with Island, he focuses on the brief moments of pain and pleasure with his timeless intuition. Island represents a tender, more melancholic chapter in Pallett's repertoire, but one that offers a refined perspective.