With Heartland, Owen Pallett officially lays the Final Fantasy moniker to rest, marking the first time that the quietly prolific Canadian has released any material under his given name—unless you count his Twitter account, which is similarly prolific. It's a major step toward the spotlight for a gifted performer and composer who managed to maintain a low profile while enjoying a phenomenally successful decade. Aside from his own releases as Final Fantasy, the last of which netted him Canada's prestigious Polaris Prize, Pallett spent the aughts touring as a violinist with Arcade Fire and arranging the gushing strings that lie at the melodramatic heart of the band's “Rebellion (Lies)” and “No Cars Go.” He's also used his compositional skills to jazz up everything from Beirut's Euro-folk reinterpretations (The Flying Cub Cup) to Fucked Up's bracing, experimental hardcore (Hidden World), not to mention remixing tracks for Stars, Grizzly Bear, and others. But Pallett couldn't have picked a better record to affix his name to: Heartland bears all the defining traits of its maker—ambitious, meticulous, and utterly singular.
In an interview with Slant, Pallett defended his He Poos Clouds over its more melodic, less cerebral predecessor, stating that “more often than not, casual listeners are looking for poignancy in music. Personally, I'm not interested in manipulating people's emotions to the point of poignancy. I like music that contains ideas, not floral patterns.” In that case, Pallett's Heartland proves to be something of a compromise, brimming with erudite lyrics that speak to big existential and artistic themes but likewise teeming with orchestral pop pieces that are lovely, intricate, moving, and yes, often poignant. He's dialed down the dissonance that generated so much of He Poos Clouds's sonic tension, with the explosive 49-second “Mount Alpentine” providing the record's most overtly confrontational moment.
On Heartland, the rule of melody is firmly established—not in the sense of easy hooks, but rather the winding, ascendant movements of classical chamber music and an abundance of lively pizzicato. And with the Czech Philharmonic at his beck and call, Pallett has no trouble expanding the scope of his melodies far beyond any of his previous works. “Red Sun No. 5” is a highlight in Pallett's catalogue of compositions, working french horns and lightly rolled typanis into a gentle tapestry of sound and topping it off with a vocal melody reminiscent of Bowie's “Ashes to Ashes.” When Pallett does want to make his listeners squirm, he's apt to use staccato percussion or flurries of glitchy electronica to disorienting effect, most notably in the verses of “The Great Elsewhere.”
Speaking of which, I know it was only a few paragraphs ago that I stressed the breadth of Pallett's recorded work, but I'll go on record arguing for ” Elsewhere” as his most beautiful song to date. It begins with abrasive crashes of strings, building from meditative verses to an uptempo finale before returning once again to melancholy. Besides showing off nearly all of Pallett's musical modes working at a high level, it contains arguably his finest vocal performance—restrained, expressive, and graceful. It's also a turning point in the album's narrative: The song concerns the protagonist (a farmer named Lewis) and his disillusionment with his creator. Its lyrics recount his shift from a worldview where the presence of a creator is a source of comfort to one in which the cruelty of the character's fictive world shows up his creator's dark nature. On the following tracks, the terrific duo of “Oh Heartland, Up Yours!” and “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt,” the newly rebellious Lewis confronts his maker but refers to him, alternately, as “the singer” and simply “Owen,” suggesting that Pallett has some rather serious points to make about his own creative endeavors.
Pallett goes even more meta on “E Is for Estranged.” There, he has a father observe his son's tortuous ketamine addiction, but in the refrain Pallett seemingly indicts the idea that music can provide the type of emotional connection to which the verses seemingly aspire, with snarky asides about string arrangements and children's choirs, not to mention his repeated confession: “I am a flightless bird, I am a liar/Feeding the facts to false fires/Pathos is born, borne of bullshit in formal attire.” Statement or no, there's no denying the track's evocative beauty, with its aching, scraping violins and measured vocal cadence. But if Pallett's music can rile up one's emotions even when appended to such arch confessions, has he undermined his argument or demonstrated it?
Tracks like these make it clear that Heartland will repay its greatest rewards to those who listen often and carefully. But those uninterested in Pallett's philosophies should have no issue sinking into his gorgeous arrangements, for even on a casual listen it's apparent that Pallett is up to something quite a lot more sophisticated than any of his peers. To put it simply, the superb craftmanship on show here, whether one pays mind to Pallett's orchestral gestures or his electronic flourishes, are going to make a lot of purportedly similar songs by talents like Andrew Bird and Jimmy Tamborello seem amateurish by comparison. Even Pallett's own work with Arcade Fire appears shallow in Heartland's wake.
Instead of using orchestration to provide a lush background or a convenient climax, Pallett leads his cast of musicians through an organic fusion of pop and classical aesthetics. It recalls Phillip Glass's operas (particularly his Waiting for the Barbarians) as much as anything in popular music and hews closer to the noisy baroque pop of Jeremy Enigk's Return of the Frog Queen than anything contemporaneous. Certainly, this is not a record of obvious hooks, with many songs only working as useful tension-builders. Indeed, many of the strong tracks on the album will not excerpt well at all, meaning that Heartland stands or falls as a single, continuous composition rather than a collection of songs. “Keep the Dog Quiet” may fail to capture on first listen, and “Tryst with Mephistopheles” might outstay its welcome, but both make substantial contributions to the progression of the album.
If this all sounds too much like homework, it's worth re-reemphasizing that, whatever his protests against casual poignancy, Pallett has crafted an absorbing gem of a record, one that delivers substantial emotional payloads by means of incredibly intricate pop music. Rather than striking a blow against emotionally captivating music in favor of the album of ideas, Pallett makes a compelling case that the two need not be antagonists (the exception being the closer, “What Will Happen Next?,” which succeeds thematically but goes nowhere interesting sonically. Perhaps there's nothing simple about Heartland, but for all its literacy and high-brown contemplation, it enchants by the same means as Pallett's previous work as Final Fantasy: the allure of undeniably pretty melodies. Pallett manages to be both literate and listenable, but what else should we expect from a man who takes his Tolstoy with his Taylor Swift?