Best of 2020: 19. Owen Pallett ‘Island’

I have tended to struggle with “I could listen to them sing the phone book” as a description of an excellent voice over the years. If that were true, I wouldn’t get annoyed by moments like the ending of The Divine Comedy’s ‘Other People’ or numerous Paul McCartney songs. As a rule, the words matter, both in terms of their cohesive semantic purpose and their syllabic scansion. We’re only ever a few steps away from being the Outhere Brothers or Muse otherwise. And yet, when it comes to Owen Pallett, their voice really does possess a stirringly instrumental quality that bypasses my critical muscle and just makes me swoon. 

island

One of many surprise drops, as I believe we must now describe record releases that are defined by their streaming-led initial appearance, during the summer of lockdown, ‘Island’ was instantly available upon the announcement of its existence in late May. It is an immersive hour which builds on the use of instrumental interstitials deployed on several occasions during 2014’s triumph ‘In Conflict’, by embedding four such orchestral passages amongst nine more conventional songs, two of which reappear as alternative versions at the record’s conclusion.

Pallett has previously demonstrated their pristine knack for sharply transitional movements during songs and the truly magnificent ‘The Sound Of The Engines’ refines this process further. Can I make sense of the lyrics? – “Woke up in an ambulance, beaten and bleeding / The sound of the engines, oh, I am a wound un-healing” – possibly not, but it is an astonishing listen. Every time it seems to be taking a melodic arc away from the direction the listener might greedily desire, it swoops back with an emphatic confidence. 

‘A Bloody Morning’ is propelled by an ominous, muscular soundstage that steps away from the more sweepingly balletic tones that dominate elsewhere. It opens with the darkly humorous lines “Started drinking on the job and the job became easy / Keep my hands upon the wheel and my eyes to the sea” and evokes the ensuing storm with dense, threatening orchestration. The proverbial calm that follows the tempest appears with ‘In Darkness’ which offers advice to a troubled mind, telling them they “don’t need to die to be forgiven,” atop a resolving string motif. 

There is an overarching narrative at play that will be familiar to fans of Pallett’s previous work. The Lewis figure – a violent 14th-century farmer – that took off his shirt on 2010’s ‘Heartland’ and went into battle with his deific creator, the character Owen Pallett, at the end of that album returns a decade after his initial victory and the aforementioned storm represents an explosive reckoning for his feelings about that moment. A reconciliation of sorts means that ‘Lewis Gets Fucked Into Space’ – and you wonder why this hasn’t been all over the 6Music playlist – not long before the balm of ‘In Darkness’.

I can’t claim to fully understand it, but that was my point at the start. With Pallett, I’m not sure it’s necessary. Their work is absorbing, exciting and challenging but somehow familiar too. Whatever the specifics of the story at its heart, this is unshakeably human music.

Physical releases have finally been announced, including a DominoMart exclusive vinyl set which adds a demo LP to the standard 2LP edition. Buy it here. 

Best of 2020: 20. Bill Callahan ‘Gold Record’

When writing my much more sensible fun-size countdown last year, I commented that I found Bill Callahan’s ‘Shepherd In A Sheepskin Vest’ a little unwieldy given its breadth. It never did ascend to the kind of position occupied by ‘Apocalypse’, ‘Dream River’ and many Smog albums. Having broken a long period of  silence with that double album, it was something of a shock to then find him announcing another record so soon thereafter. The enjoyably titled ‘Gold Record’ was a much more immediate delight, with its languid, finger-plucked jackanory for tired adults tone.

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Having published the magnificent lyrical collection ‘I Drive A Valance’ and an epistolary work of fiction, ‘Letters To Emma Bowlcut’, in the last decade, the blurring of the lines between songwriter and plain writer is ever more pronounced across these ten songs. Some are new pieces, others simply never fitted the times when they were written and ‘Let’s Move To The Country’ is a new take on the track from 1999’s superb ‘Knock Knock’, with some telling lyrical additions to finish sentences and update the story. Where once Callahan may have been more angular and less open, fatherhood and the all-encompassing embrace of family life would seem to have reshaped his perspective.

The narrative drive of ‘The Mackenzies’ steps between those two worlds, with an older man rushing out of his house to help a younger neighbour with car trouble. The latter then reflects,  “we never met before, despite living not door. I’m the type of guy who sees a neighbour outside and stays inside and hides. I’ll run that errand another time.” The joys of the resulting communal experience leave their mark, even as the older family’s tragic loss is revealed and the narrator is given a new role. It’s beautiful, both in terms of how it is delivered and how it is constructed.

‘Breakfast’ has a couple of the rather wonderful moments that occur from time to time in Callahan’s work where it sounds like there is some sort of performative power surge. The most notable occurs around the thirty second mark, where things seem to very briefly get caught up in a strong breeze against which the vocal stands strong. Opener ‘Pigeons’ invokes Johnny Cash and Leonard Cohen while focusing on the life of a wedding limo driver. Not only is his delivery of the word “limo” so on brand it’s quite magical, but it also contains some stirring lyrical economy: “well, they seemed like a match so I stopped looking for cracks in their road and just drove.”

As ever with Bill Callahan, this doesn’t work as backing music. The songs are laden with beguiling details, eloquent nuance and musical inflections that reward the dedicated listener. Similar to many of his albums before this, ‘Gold Record’ seeps into one’s consciousness and offers a commanding, immersive experience if given the chance. Anything that forces you to only do one thing in these times is very welcome indeed, but this writing will far outlast our current concerns.

Buy ‘Gold Record’ from Raves From The Grave