Owen Pallett may not go by Final Fantasy anymore, but he sure hasn’t lost any of his inner nerd. This is the same guy that wrote an album based around the schools of magic in Dungeons and Dragons, the guy who wrote tracks called “Adventure.exe” and “Cockatrice”. And Heartland falls along the same lines, though in an intensely meta way. Essentially, it’s a concept album about Pallett himself creating a sometime shirtless, rugged yet deranged farmer named Lewis, and falling in love with him. If that sounds a little too complex, geeky or literary for you, don’t fret. Pallett’s masterful composition, violin-work and looping are enough to sate music nerds that don’t go in for post-modern narratives.
The swooning strings and crooning vocals intro that opens the album on “Midnight Directives” are nothing short of gorgeous. But, rather than revel in big melodic sounds, a “Lost”-esque violin squeal slides into place, adding an off-kilter, eerie element. The poly rhythmic percussion that follows (at least partially contributed by long-time friend and Arcade Fire drummer Jeremy Gara) keeps the song off center, while Pallett’s cerebral, indie on Broadway melody is punctuated by horn stabs. But, the bubbling, plucked violin around the 1:25 mark is the gasp-inducing moment of the tune. The sounds pop and twist from left to right, until the lush Czech Symphony Strings chug and prod the tune to a climactic end.
The plunking violin and maracas evoke a Latin groove in “Keep the Dog Quiet” are quite nice, but the self-referential opening lyrics are a marvel. “My body is a cage,” Pallett murmurs, referencing Arcade Fire’s song of the same name. Pallett helped write string arrangements for Arcade Fire’s albums, and even toured with them, so there’s no way it’s an accident. But, the next line shows Pallett winking and whimpering simultaneously, adding a dash of his twisted uncertainty and over thinking, compared to the straightforward drama of Arcade Fire’s version: “This union is a cage about a cage about a cage.”
In “Lewis Takes Action”, Lewis speaks for himself and the music and lyrics take a definite turn. The instrumentation is far more staccato, confident, simple even. There are flashes of dissonance, of strange, unlatching sounds. Lines like “I’ll bludgeon til’ the body’s cold” are clearly not Pallett’s florid, intricate voice; they usher in a second, interior voice. The scratchy, electric stutter of “The Great Elsewhere” is the break between these two voices, the moment at which Lewis and Owen begin to realize they can’t work together. No more of Lewis’ marching horns and no more of Pallett’s loping strings; instead there’s aching, fractured synth, with the occasional symphonic groan. In the end, the piano and violins that win out produce a deep, swallowing sea, suggesting a winner in the struggle of personalities.
But it isn’t over there. No, that’s just the halfway point. The wobbling, charging flow of “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt”, the Disney pomp of “Flare Gun”, the lithe waltz of “E is for Estranged” all follow, investigating the break between creator and creation. Owen talks about Lewis, Lewis talks about Owen; they love each other, but the uncertain relationship of creator/creation twists and turns them. It all comes to a violent, cataclysmic end, leaving things looking towards life “in the ground together.”
Where other bands take orchestral elements and add them to traditional pop or rock music, the orchestra is everything to Pallett. That’s where the Broadway or operatic connections may come from. Instead of layering onto a standard verse-chorus-verse, the strings, horns and Pallett’s vocals relish the big, bombastic moments as well as the low, depressed ones. Between this and the heavily written lyrics, the album has the feel of a musical or a fairy tale, which, I would guess, was Pallett’s very intention. One can imagine the album being set to a narrative film, without any difficulty or confusion. In fact, Heartland feels a lot like what Joanna Newsom would make if she were to focus her work into a narrative structure, and showed a little more insecurity.
Flatly put, this album is a wonder. The lyrics are intense, beautiful and tragic. The narrative is clear, yet the intricacies and nuances of the structure and story are enough to ensure this’ll be spinning for a long while without figuring everything out. The music is lush, detailed and follows themes. The well wrought, detailed album is like a masterful novel, layering and weaving elements until the thing is impossible to put down.