This has turned out to be a stellar year for Canadian violin maestro Owen Pallett, who has stepped out from underneath the moniker Final Fantasy to record music using his own name. (Well, I have a former co-worker who works with Pallett’s half-brother who reportedly claims that Owen isn’t really his first name, and a quick peek at Wikipedia proves this to be true, but you get the drift.) Not only has Pallett arranged the strings on what might just be a candidate for this year’s Album of the Year – that would be the Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs – but he has put out an album that might be a darkhorse challenger for that very title in Heartland. While at least one broadcaster have written that record off as mere self-conscious pretentious twaddle (are you there Alan Cross?), this writer considers Heartland – which is a kind of concept album about a farmer named Lewis challenging his own creator named Owen on the distant planet of Spectrum – as one of the beautiful records ever made. Period. Worthy of singling out is the gorgeous “E Is for Estranged”, which made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up the first time I heard it and very nearly, on another occasion, made me break down in tears at just the sheer drama that the tune conjures up. Given the volume of music that I get exposed to in a given year to almost nullifying effect, that one song would provoke such an emotional response is indicative of Pallett’s strengths as an emotive songwriter.
Barely nine months later, Pallett has released an EP that isn’t a collection of B-sides, remixes or a continuation of the themes and music explored on Heartland, but a proper mini-album in its own right: A Swedish Love Story. It’s a brief, four-song collection, available as both a 10-inch vinyl record and digital download, that Pallett himself considers to be evocative of his 2005 debut Has a Good Home, and was inspired by one of his favourite films, En Kårlekshistoria, a 1970 Swedish motion picture about young love. The EP is also said to be a postcard to Swedish songwriters that Pallett finds inspiring, and one has to wonder if this was a Valentine to be sent to Jens Lekman as a result. The songs on the album have a sweep of cinematic grandiosity about them, which is nothing new for Pallett, but they also have a bit of a pop sheen to them in the same space. The opening track, “A Man with No Ankles” even sounds a little bit like end credits music to a ‘80s film directed by John Hughes. The song starts out with the line “Somewhere between a window and my doorstep / I remembered what it was to play, to play, to play”, which can be both indicative of Pallett’s love of making music, and well as kindling a relationship. For all of Pallett’s insistence that this EP most resembles his debut, there’s a break in the track that recalls “Song Song Song” from 2006’s He Poos Clouds. It’s a lovely start to the mini-album, and literally oozes with a European pop feel, perhaps venturing into mid-‘80s Depeche Mode territory if it weren’t for the stuttering violins.
The follow-up, “Scandal at the Parkade”, is frantically paranoid-sounding and features Pallett and his violin multi-tracked to breathtaking effect. “Honour the Dead, or Else” continues on with the dark thematic of the EP’s belly, and if one took away the violins, you would be left with a track that would be as synthetically brooding as Culture Club’s “Do You Really Want to Hurt Me”, the former of which ends with lovely plucked strings against a minor key piano. Finally, “Don’t Stop” bookends this extended play ending the album on a much more brighter note, fulfilling the function of finishing the mini-album in the same way that “A Man with No Ankles” opens it on a sunshiny beat. “Don’t Stop” contains the hint of hope, dispelling the dark menace of the album’s mid-section.
At just about 17 minutes in length, A Swedish Love Story is really too short to make much of an impact, and, to a certain degree, it feels like a collection of thematically-linked songs that Pallett had lying around that he wanted to make room for somewhere yet didn’t want to expand into a proper album. However, while this EP doesn’t surpass the brilliance that is Heartland, its brevity makes for a strong collection of songs – there really isn’t a total misstep or misfire on this mini-album at all – and positioning two radiant songs at the outer poles with two darker ones in the middle suggests that some allegiance was made to composing a sonic form to the EP. (This is why it works best as a digital download than a vinyl release, where the middle is broken apart by two separate sides.) One could quibble about certain minor things – dropped violins that depart too soon from “Scandal at the Parkade” or a tempo shift mid-way through “A Man with No Ankles” that feels out of place – but that’s just carping. A Swedish Love Story is a fine example of what a gifted auteur can do in as little as a week’s time, which was how long it took to record this extended play, and showcases that Owen Pallett hasn’t lost his touch or his muse. It might be a mere, pardon the pun, pallet-clearing exercise, and perhaps these tracks, despite being sonically different from Heartland, will become add-ons to a deluxe packaging of that long-player in say 10 years time (assuming the compact disc format is still with us). Until then, A Swedish Love Story is gifted in its own right, and a welcome addition to the ever expanding catalogue of Owen Pallett.