Owen Pallett emerged as a prodigious teenage violinist and in the proceeding years has provided string and orchestral arrangements for a long list of varied artists, notably Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear, The National, and even Frank Ocean. Their previous four studio albums (two as Final Fantasy) attracted a wide and passionate following, almost sacred-like in nature. Yet with that remarkable body of work in the past, Island is majestic enough to be acclaimed as Pallett’s strongest work yet.
Pallett recorded Island at the famous Abbey Road Studios with the help of the London Contemporary Orchestra, and their power lends the record a full-bodied sound. One needs only to listen to Pallett’s extraordinarily moving (and Oscar-nominated) score with Arcade Fire’s Will Butler for the 2014 film Her to know the skill he possesses in moulding melancholia from even the slightest instrumentation.
Complex string sections make way for pleasant and pastoral melodies, never growing too convoluted. Pallett achieves this cleverly by breaking up the songs into suites, interspersing them with four tracks titled —>. These are all instrumental pieces, a moment of punctuation for pause and reflection. The instrumentation is also so rich in its minutiae: intricate guitars come to the fore on songs like Transformer before being relieved by an aching piano or an overpowering brass section as witnessed on —> (iv).
The lyricism displays the wry and humorous tone that Pallett has always had (he named one of his Final Fantasy albums He Poos Clouds, after all). From the first song that features a vocal, Pallett proclaims, “When I wish I was never born/ My mother tells me I wasn’t born so much as excreted”; Pallett then starts A Bloody Morning with the darkly comical “Started drinking on the job/ And the job became easy”. Pallett reminds one of Leonard Cohen or Sufjan Stevens; a sombre sonic prophet whose lyrics can display the joy and vibrancy of life when it suits. At other moments, like on The Sound Of The Engines, Pallett’s voice recalls the plaintive and sad hue of Nick Drake, with a stronger delivery.
Island is prone to pretentiousness but it’s rightfully earned, such is the skill shown in executing the music. It’s cinematic in scope and wholly immersive, as orchestral music should be. Tense and intense, beautiful and haunting, Island is an hour of music to lose oneself in.