Album Review: Owen Pallett – Heartland
(Posted at AmeliasMagazine.com)
When Owen Pallett, the man behind the erstwhile Final Fantasy moniker, announced in December 2009 that he was abandoning the name in favour of recording under his birth name, it came not without a sigh of relief – for years the slightly-embarrassing recording name had led to a kind of stigmatization within Pallett’s fans – including numerous inside jokes envisioning bleary-eyed, pock-marked RPG nerds, stumbling from their houses, giddy with the promise of an evening devoted to their favourite video game – only to be faced with a devastatingly hip young man playing sumptuous, violin-looped indie pop -impish, Pallet may be, but he ain’t no fairy – although, considering Pallett’s own, infamous devotion to the video game, he may have been more than happy to accommodate said nerds at his concerts.
As endearing as such stories may be, they still led to Pallett becoming slightly belittled in the indie community – rather than garnering the fervent praise and respect he deserved, he was slotted lazily into the male folk singer-songwriter category, along with Sufjan Stevens and Andrew Bird – Pallett’s sprawling, endlessly cinematic compositions bears far more similarity to Van Dyke Park’s work with Joanna Newsom rather than Bird’s compact little folk ditties.
Having said that, it is ironic that Pallett chooses to dump the whimsical Final Fantasy recording moniker on the album that is by far Pallett’s most fantastical yet – ‘Heartland’ is an unbelievably opulent record, each chord blessed with a kind of extravagant, sprawling luxuriousness, almost to the point of indolence. Even by Pallett’s decorative standards, ‘Heartland’ is goddamn flowery – in fact, the gently curvaceous, coalescing melodies of ‘Lewis Takes Action’ are so feather-light that when Pallett delivers the blunt violence of the ‘I broke his jaw, he’ll never speak’ line – in his wan, fluttering soprano over endless, fluffy stratums of dizzying strings, it seems almost devastatingly incongruous.
And thus we are introduced to ‘Heartland’s main protagonist – ‘Heartland’ is written in the character of brawny, alpha-male farmer Lewis, who spends most of his time lamenting his broken family (‘Left my daughter and my wife’) and getting into various scrapes and hijinks with a mythical creature called, interestingly enough, Owen (‘I drove the iron spike into Owen’s eyes’) who he also, bizarrely, appears to be in love with (‘I’ve been in love with Owen since/ I heard the strains of Psalm 21’).
The more you delve into ‘Heartland’s chasms, the more you realise what a bizarrely warped world it is – although this is no error of communication on Pallett’s half, indeed, you get the feeling Pallett may have wanted it that way – as though he relishes the idea of his fans poring over ‘Heartland’s lyric booklet, their foreheads knitting and eyebrows raising in quick succession.
For however straight-laced and oppressive ‘Heartland’ may appear on first listen, Pallett is yet to descend into stern-faced baroqueness – there’s still a gentle, self-effacing humour shot into Pallett’s epic panorama, especially in the casting of Pallett as a kind of hulking monster – Pallett fans will know that the line ‘I drew a bruise on his brawny shoulder’ is highly incongruous with Owen’s corporeal, slight frame – and it’s almost prognosticated that any record which includes a song called ‘Lewis Takes Off His Shirt’ (which seems to ring more of a gossip than a symphony piece) is destined not to take itself entirely seriously – right?