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. 

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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.