Ever since the Beatles added strings to “Eleanor Rigby,” in 1966, mixing classical music and pop has been a risky proposition. It’s very easy to mistake grandiosity for sophistication—just look at Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Pictures at an Exhibition or Metallica’s S&M, a live collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony.
But for every simple-minded crossover like the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Past, there’s an example from a parallel and equally long-standing tradition of artistic exchange and influence between forward-thinking rock artists and 20th-century composers: John Cale’s connection to John Cage, La Monte Young, and Terry Riley; the influence of minimalist composers and Karlheinz Stockhausen on German avant-rock band Can; Glenn Branca’s presence on New York’s downtown music scene in the 1970s and early ’80s; or the classically trained cellist Arthur Russell’s contributions to the experimental side of disco and what would become house music.
The last few years have seen a renewed interest in this intersection of classical and pop music, and with increasingly credible results. The respected and broad-minded contemporary ensemble Kronos Quartet has released an album of chamber music by the National’s Bryce Dessner in 2013 and appeared this year on Adventureland, a collection of Wilco drummer Glenn Kotchke’s new-music compositions. Composer Nico Muhly, who has contributed string arrangements to songs by Will Oldham, Grizzly Bear, and Usher, had his opera Two Boys produced by both the English National Opera and the Metropolitan Opera. A new generation of small ensembles—Bang on a Can, JACK Quartet, Brooklyn Rider—is incorporating work from outside the established canon and projecting an accessible image without sacrificing musical rigor.
All of which creates a favorable landscape for Canadian singer/songwriter/arranger/multi-instrumentalist Owen Pallett’s new album, In Conflict (Domino). Pallett has legitimate credentials—he began studying violin at the age of 3, studied composition at the University of Toronto, and has had works commissioned by Bang on a Can as well as other, more mainstream ensembles. He’s also a frequent collaborator with the Arcade Fire and has arranged string sections for Taylor Swift and Linkin Park. He became semi-famous, though, in 2006, with the release of his second album, He Poos Clouds, a joyful, elaborate, engaging collection of immaculately constructed chamber pop. (He Poos Clouds, like Pallett’s debut album, Has a Good Home, was released under the name Final Fantasy. Since 2010’s Heartland, Pallett has released his music under his own name.)
In Conflict sounds like the album Pallett has been working toward for the last decade. The electronics that first appeared on Heartland are now an essential part of Pallett’s music—programmed beats and squiggly synth riffs are paired with live strings and percussion for an immersive, otherworldly sound, but the songs remain tight and focused. Pallett’s voice, too, is better than it’s ever been, and emerges here as one of the album’s best instruments—clear, strong, and direct, with a dramatic and surprising falsetto that owes as much to Motown as it does to boys’ choirs.
The lyrics, too, are direct, in contrast to Pallett’s previous dense obscurity—instead of Dungeons and Dragons, the songs on In Conflict reflect relationships in moments of crisis. But Pallett has dismissed the notion that the new album is more personal than his previous work, suggesting that In Conflict is confessional in form but not in content. The characters falling in and out of love throughout the album are likely just as fictional as the magicians and monsters on He Poos Clouds.
There are plenty of precedents for Pallett’s particular sound—Arthur Russell, Kate Bush, Patrick Wolf, Scott Walker, Muhly’s collaborator Sam Amidon, maybe Joanna Newsom. But the combination of elegance, absurdity, and compositional skill he’s working with on In Conflict really seem to have landed him in rarefied territory—after more than a dozen listens, the album is still unfurling and still feels brand new.