Friday, December 18th, 2020

Owen Pallett – A Bloody Morning

Caught between “Damn Daniel” and the steep Simmy…


Tim de Reuse: I will try to break down what I hear as straightforwardly as I can, to convey the staggering precision with which this song accomplishes its goals. A piano chiming suspensions and seventh chords in unerring syncopation. A drumset hitting every sixteenth note. An orchestra working in extended tertiary harmony, in wide and noisy swells that are only half-connected to whatever the rest of the song is doing. A double bass rumbling out a note that floats discordantly underneath the song’s key in places where, structurally speaking, most would insert some kind of tonal resolution. Atop all this, a washed-up protagonist stews in his own self-destructive tendencies. Raw momentum for a spiral of hypermasculine self-loathing; a bunch of parts that barely fit together for the narrator splitting apart; a narrative shipwreck illustrated through tonal shipwreck. And, yes, let me lay my cards on the table: Owen Pallett’s last album came out the same month I did. There is an unshakable connection between Pallett singing about masculinity and mental illness and my memories of the worst/best month of my life. But I am not speaking from sentimentality when I say that their inventive orchestration is the backbone of their solo work, and it elevates what would otherwise be a downer of a character study into a three-act tragedy. It is a perfect song, in the same sense that a machine can be perfectly designed or a knife can be perfectly sharpened — it also makes me tear up a little, but that’s just a bonus.

Thomas Inskeep: Built around a piano melody reminiscent of Sébastien Tellier’s “La Ritournelle,” with gorgeous orchestration (those strings, those horns) and a stunner of an opening couplet (“Started drinking on the job/And the job became easy”), this has a soaring, cinematic scope that builds and builds — until it stops. Pallett is definitely more a composer than a pop musician these days, and God bless them for it. This fills, and breaks, my heart like nothing has since I read Rebecca Makkai’s 2018 novel The Great Believers earlier this year, which makes perfect sense, as Pallett uses words more like a novelist than a songwriter. I am left, gratefully, devastated. 

John Seroff: “A Bloody Morning” is as good as any other track on Pallett’s legit among-the-best-of-2020 LP Island, which is saying a lot. All of Island feels immensely grandiloquent in the most enjoyable way, deep and lovely, genius and mysterious like a found encoded diary. “Morning” is among the album’s most portentous and joyous music; both video and song illustrate the wonderful heights and terrible lows, regardless of love or identity, that accompany all of our journeys from dawn to night. If I’m burbling and bouncing like the song’s motif, well, it’s hard not to be inspired into duality of language while listening to a thing so dark and uplifting and melancholy and redeeming and up and up and oh so far down. I want to ask Owen if they’re okay, but I think they beat me to it.

Vikram Joseph: Listening to Island as a whole, “A Bloody Morning” serves as a cathartic shift in the narrative; an unforecast tornado that shatters the calm that came before it and violently rearranges the record’s component parts. It’s no less effective as a standalone piece. In many ways, it feels like a sequel to “The Riverbed”, which occupied a similar role on In Conflict — sharing themes of alcoholism (“Spider-veins are forming / I’ve mistaken self-indulgence for self-care”) and a turbulent, militaristic rhythm. “A Bloody Morning” is the more cinematic and expansive of the two, masterful in its dynamic shifts and string arrangements and stretching across almost six minutes (perhaps a little longer than it needs, but it seems churlish to quibble over a minute or so on a song this absorbing). On Pallett’s Spectrum albums it’s extremely hard to tell what’s metaphor and what’s a literal depiction of the adventures of everyone’s favourite ultra-violent gay farmer Lewis in his 14th-century fantasy world, but the drunk captain/shipwreck narrative here serves as an effective allegory for self-destructive behaviour and a feeling of losing control. “Surely some disaster will descend and equalise us,” the protagonist muses, which now seems like a particularly bleak joke — turns out even disaster can’t equalise [gestures in general] this.

Juana Giaimo: Owen Pallett’s Island was a surprise, because they finally showed the warmth that many times their songs hid. “A Bloody Morning” is deeply moving. It’s definitely the most intense track on the album, the sharp piano chords are like spikes, the beat is relentless and, at the end of the verses, the contrast of deep and high arrangements create a truly tense environment — it almost seems that we are at sea with the narrator, Lewis, in between violent waves. Their voice, however, is smooth and almost seems to tell the story from afar — just like Lewis feels distanced from the world around him. But as the song reaches its culmination, with those choir-like vocals and spiritual lyrics of Lewis finally being illuminated and feeling more sensitive towards other people, it’s unfortunately already too late. It’s inevitable not to think about COVID-19 and all the bloody mornings there were this year. 

Madi Ballista: The music builds up wonderfully, the drums providing a steady sense of progression that refuses to be rushed, giving the grand feeling of a track off a movie score, except… actually, that’s exactly what this sounds like: lyrics set to a movie score. They’re evocative lyrics, but the imagery occasionally fades into a blur, and they ultimately fell flat for me, particularly the points where it sounds like they’re describing whatever movie scene goes with this track. It’s a very lovely piece of music, but it is way too long for a vocal track — can I just have the instrumental version, please?

Alfred Soto: Owen Pallett’s, ah, palette has new colors since 2014’s In Conflict. In keeping with their production and scoring work, “A Bloody Morning” uses strings for a subtle menace overlooked by many composers returning to songwriting. Their worried burr has more than a little of John Cale as an influence. The lyrics, though, are their own: a Coleridgean fever dream in which rough waters have their way for a ship. The devastating coda hints at who wins. 

Austin Nguyen: I’ve never really understood the literary fixation with boats. Maybe it’s because I’ve never read Life of Pi (though I should) or The Odyssey (which I’ll probably be forced into writing an essay on soon enough), but really, what else is there to “setting sail” and “venturing into uncharted waters” besides freedom, danger, and salt that I wouldn’t be equally privy to on land as a bitter college freshman? (Now that I think about it, the only canonized book I’ve read with a sailor in it is Heart of Darkness; I’ve found reason for my aversion). “A Bloody Morning” is constructed on the same premise, an orchestral saga of the sea that journeys through cymbals crashing like waves against the hull, a string (and horn?) section that sounds like you’re staring into the bleakest running depths of the ocean, and a frenetic piano lilting back and forth in dissonant foam. It’s a foreboding score that wouldn’t be out of place in the climax of an opera (a singular spotlight, the rest of the stage blotted out in enough darkness to make the soloist a focal point, but bright enough to still make out the faint silhouettes of objects on stage; the arrival of the tempest above), yet Pallett is no epic hero. The armor is still gilded, sure; there’s some higher-power feminized abstraction (Lady Virtue instead of Lady Luck), foreboding conflict (new euphemism for death: “equalize”!), someone to save (passengers caught in a storm and a shipwrecked woman). But Pallett doesn’t fight, mostly because they can’t: “I cannot swim, I cannot swim.” Nature is too overwhelming; the fatal flaw, in this case, is being human, which is where Pallett clicks with me, I guess: Why live life on sea when the violence of life on land (the drinking and “self-indulgence,” in Pallett’s case) is difficult enough? No boulder-lifting strength or superlative characteristic needed; only the devastation of dreams and the flotsam of reality thereafter.

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: Making your song about causing a naval disaster sound like a naval disaster-in-progress is an exceedingly bold move and I am glad that Owen Pallett has decided to do it. While lesser artists would see such a task as “corny” or “pretentious,” Mx. Pallett instead leans fully into their song’s conceit. It’s cinematic — not in the obvious way of sounding like a movie score (they already did the soundtrack for Dumbo, what more could you ask?) or in the cliche way of describing a big budget album by a major artist, but instead in a more mechanistic sense. Every element is expertly chosen to evoke both literal details of the scene Pallett is constructing and the inner turmoil they wish to depict. Greg Fox’s drums crash like waves against rocks, true — but their clatter, a constant arrhythmic heartbeat, is a window into Pallett’s seafarer’s scattered brain. If this song had been part of Pallett’s earlier work, the bell and string arpeggios would’ve been front and center, a virtuoso touch designed to demonstrate genius. Ten years on from Heartland, they no longer feel the need to impress. Instead, Pallett uses the gradual fade-in of more and more elements to overwhelm their own vocal performance, drowning out the self in senses both literal and metaphorical.

Reader average: [6.75] (16 votes)

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One Response to “Owen Pallett – A Bloody Morning”

  1. I had rated this with a 9, then changed it to an 8 (I have no idea why, sometimes numbers are more confusing than words). Now that I’ve read all these fantastic blurbs, I’d definitely change it back to 9 again.