Review Summary: Owen Pallett drops the Final Fantasy moniker and returns more confident, more ambitious and with his best album yet.
It’s hard not to be impressed by Owen Pallett. After all, we’re talking about a man who has been composing since the age of 13 and has contributed orchestral arrangements to the music of Arcade Fire, Beirut and Grizzly Bear, among others. Besides his work behind the scenes, he’s won the Polaris Music Prize for his solo work, earning it for his second album, He Poos Clouds. However, to those familiar with his critically acclaimed second LP and the work prior to it, beware; Mr. Pallett is a changed man! He’s crumpled up and tossed his Final Fantasy moniker over his shoulder and gone with it are the track listings littered with video game references and the awkwardly personal lyrics. Heartland not only represents his first release under his own name but also his first under Domino Records and Pallett has embraced a fresh start with a decidedly more serious tone. Though these tunes about farmers and deities and imaginary worlds may not seem so far flung from the absurdities and childishness that ran through the spine of He Poos Clouds, Heartland contains a little less quirk and a little more focus and ultimately is Pallett’s best album yet.
Though it starts far too slowly for its own good (not picking up any real force until the wonderful and plucky “Lewis Takes Action” begins) where Heartland shines is when it dares to be brave. With songs like “The Great Elsewhere”, in which ditzy, Nintendo synths are combined with a dramatic string arrangement, to excellent results, it seems like Pallett has really come into his own as a musician, and he sounds more confident than ever as a result. Though orchestral arrangements, at times, can seem slightly too melodramatic and bloated in songs such as “Tryst with Mephistopheles” and “Flare Gun”, there is a fine line that Pallett rides between ambitious and excessive and for the most part, he lands closer towards the good side of that see-saw.
In concept, Heartland is based around a farmer named Lewis, in a world called Spectrum, and his relationship with the deity of the world, Owen. Though the story isn’t easy to follow, due to the often cryptic or ambiguous lyrics, it doesn’t weigh down on the album, as concepts sometimes do. In fact, the emotional climax of “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” is all the more fascinating with the vague shouts of “If what I have is what you need / I’m never gonna give it to you!”. His noticeably improved vocals are a welcome (and in context, necessary) surprise, delivering Lewis’ lines in “Lewis Takes Action” with confidence before adopting a strangely distant quality in the equally cryptic “Oh Heartland, Up Yours!”, using his voice to establish an important sense of tone in the songs and as a result, the story.
However, what really puts Pallett above his peers in the indie climate is how inimitable he is. What he’s done can certainly be done again but the reason it won’t is simple; how many indie musicians you know had composed two operas by the age of 18? His compositions, performed by The Czech Symphony Orchestra, propel the songs to success and it’s immediately obvious that the tracks would be nothing without them. Whereas gratuitous strings often seem like cheap shots at tugging the heart strings of both the listener and the critic, Heartland is made all the more genuine by it. Heartland is based around a story of a mystical world and as such, the stately arrangements create feelings of majesty, drama and tension, like a soundtrack, which is essentially the purpose it’s meant to serve.
Ultimately, Heartland is an album that works to its creators strengths. His love of role playing video games may have spurred him to create a world of his own, his classical background makes the arrangements all the more exciting, and his work behind the scenes with some of indie’s biggest names (and on some of indie’s biggest albums; Funeral, anyone?) meant it was only due time before he stepped out of the slightly restrained persona that released He Poos Clouds and into the more self-assured musician that is Owen Pallett. Whichever way you look at it, Pallett excels in every aspect of this album, most likely because it’s an area he has tremendous experience in and I can give nothing but praise to the man who uses his strengths this potently.