“This place is a narrative mess”, Owen Pallett warns us early on in the proceedings of Heartland, his seemingly forever-in-the-works third full-length album. Call it a pre-emptive strike against listeners hoping to map an easy path through the murky thicket of the album’s ostensible plot, billed as a heated one-sided dialogue between Lewis, an “ultra-violent young farmer” in the mythical land of Spectrum and the story’s godlike creator, named, likely without coincidence, Owen. Yes, Heartland is a dreaded “concept” album, and a worryingly meta one at that, but Pallett is letting us, and himself, off the hook from the very start by having the wit to acknowledge the sheer goofy pomposity of such things. It is a move not at all atypical of Pallett, who has throughout his career as a songwriter managed to inject generous amounts of good humor into the inherent geekiness and imposing pretention of his material.
How geeky? This is the guy who, up until a month prior to this album’s release, recorded and toured under the name Final Fantasy, a nod to his love for the long running video game series (fear of potential litigation, or at least brand confusion, finally motivated the name change). How pretentious? Pallett is a classically trained violinist who has not let his chosen genre (indie-pop) change his instrument-of-choice, or even the mannerisms of his compositions. His previous albums, Has a Good Home (2005) and He Poos Clouds (2006), examined this collision from opposite ends of his own possibly-invented continuum, the former an album of spry pop songs sketched out largely on his violin, the latter a dense song cycle (based on the eight schools of magic in Dungeons and Dragons, no less) composed for a chamber ensemble.
It is probably nothing short of astounding, then, that Pallett’s music never comes off as particularly precious, humorless or impenetrable, despite trappings that would seem to guarantee all of the above. There is no questioning, at this point, his talent as a musician, which even ignoring his solo work has made him something of a go-to guy for string arrangements, having worked on Arcade Fire’s Funeral and more recently called upon by everyone from Fucked Up to the Mountain Goats to Pet Shop Boys. But what Pallett infuses his own work with, long after you have ceased marveling at his craft and audacity, is the kind of palpably human presence that many of his art-school peers bury under so much willful eccentricity.
Granted, Heartland is still an elaborately strange record, rife with lyrical references to cockatrices (“I took No-Face by his beak and broke his jaw / he’ll never speak”, sings our dragon-slaying narrator) and 14th century rural life (“I’ve been living through days / carrying no burden / but the shit of cattle”), but Pallett’s charismatic playfulness grants him an appropriate amount of serious conviction in his material without ever letting it lapse into ponderousness. Pallett is never smug either, his tendency towards lyrical in-jokes, most vivid here in the X-Ray Spex-channeling title of the album’s centerpiece “Oh Heartland, Up Yours!”, finding a balance between knowing winks and genuine affection. His running references to the Arcade Fire, begun with Has a Good Home’s “This is the Dream of Win and Regine” (itself a play on Dntel’s “This is the Dream of Evan and Chan”), continue here with a direct name check of the band’s “My Body is a Cage” (in a song whose own title, “Keep The Dog Quiet”, feels like an oblique spin on Arcade Fire’s “Keep The Car Running”), ringing as expressions of true gratitude for the band that first put him on the map.
Pallett’s unashamed embrace of pop music (if 70s punk and high profile indie-rock are still too obscure for you, note that his joyful live cover of Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” has been a staple of his shows for years) establishes him as an artist living comfortably on the fringes of popular culture rather than armoring himself against it, enough so that when Owen’s angsty protagonist rails against his creator with “you wrote me like a Disney kid, in cut-offs and a beater”, the reference registers more as an acknowledgement of a common cultural touchstone than as a hipster joke. If this sounds compromised, it isn’t; Pallett’s willingness to inject his arty compositions with the kind of warmth and melody that many of his more famous peers like Sufjan Stevens or Grizzly Bear willfully evade only makes them richer as a result. For all of their mutant violin and electronic squiggles, songs like “Midnight Directives” and “The Great Elsewhere” are infused with the urgency of rock drama. It lends the entire album a sense of forward momentum that allows its more subdued moments—the lavish melodrama of “E is For Estranged”, the ominous piano creep of “What Do You Think Will Happen Now?”—the luxury of never feeling slack or indulgent.
Pallett has always known how to separate his music from the Renaissance Fair crowd even while appealing to it, but what is typically impressive about Heartland is just how good the record sounds. Where Has a Good Home and He Poos Clouds acknowledged and worked within the bounds of their own insular confines, Heartland has a fine polish that feels as expansive as it is ornate. Whether this is the result of four years of crafting or the benefits of some well-deserved Polaris Prize money (He Poos Clouds was the inaugural winner of the Canadian award), Heartland finally has the cinematic reach to match Pallett’s ambitions. Where a less confident artist might lose themselves in a freshly-acquired epic scale, it is exactly the thing that helps define Heartland’s standout moments: the electronic rumblings opening, Oz-like, into the panoramic sonic wonderland of “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt”, the violin swirls circling “Flare Gun”, the mingling of the, yes, Arcade Fire-esque bass throb and sweeping strings around the normally-plainspoken Pallett’s loveliest vocal performance yet on “Tryst With Mephistopheles”.
Towards the end of 2009, with Heartland finally completed and its creator having already moved on to other projects, Pallett posted a message to his Twitter account enthusing that he had just spent “10 days on the best album I’ve ever had the pleasure of working on”. It didn’t take much speculation to figure out that he is almost certainly speaking of the upcoming Arcade Fire release, and fans of both artists began salivating accordingly. No matter what the result of that collaboration may end up being, Heartland itself is confirmation enough that Owen Pallett is already in the midst of an incredible 2010.
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