Up until recently, you may have known Owen Pallett as Final Fantasy. Pallett made the moniker change in December, citing copyright laws that he was pretty transparently ignoring. It’s a shame, too. There are certainly those who would argue that naming your band after a tremendously popular role-playing game is a tad silly (this writer included), but the choice was memorable and cheekily amusing. What’s more, the name kind of fit. Pallett may not be writing songs about magical orbs or anything, but his music and Final Fantasy share a similar sprawling ambition as well as an aesthetic meticulously steeped in old-world mysticism. And the phantasmagorical and antiquated sounds of his recently released Heartland should appeal to a crowd beyond those seeking temporary dislodgment from reality.
To put it mildly, Heartland is nothing short of stunning. You’ll remember it when 2010 nears its conclusion and a new list season begins. Pallett claims that the process of recording and completing Heartland was tremendously difficult and exhausting, and it truly shows. This is one busy album, full of carefully placed stray noises whizzing by the listener before he/she has time to process them. At the center of all of this clangor is Pallett, furiously orchestrating a world full of modern and ancient noises seamlessly co-existing. You can be certain that Pallett made good on his plan to compose and compose and compose for Heartland until the pages were absolutely covered in black.
From the outset, Heartland is disorienting and fascinating, a tragic story of a vicious farmer named Lewis failing in his attempts to speak to his maker. Naturally, Pallett’s storytelling style is as dense and unpredictable as his music. “Mount Alpentine” finds Lewis determined to begin his quest to talk to his creator, yet Pallett sings his lines operatically and doggedly out of key with the music, as if to underscore the foolhardiness of Lewis’ task. Later, Lewis’ decision to get violent is oddly accompanied by the resplendent pop of “Lewis Takes Action.” As Lewis grows increasingly resolute (and violent) on “The Great Elsewhere”, it is to the cosmic and hyper-arpeggiated strains of a synthesizer complimented by sweeping electronic drums. Heartland is, by turns, an album of chamber pop, harsh electronics, gypsy folk and a variety of other genres all cohesively and brilliantly unified within one symphonic narrative.
Of course, there are those who will say that Pallett’s compositional hand is a little heavy; that Heartland over-arrangements work to its detriment. After all, Pallett is not the most full-throated singer, and his lyrics tend to skew towards the opaque. With such a vast and dizzying expanse of competing instruments, Pallett makes it a tad difficult to focus on the central story of Heartland. Yet even if there is some truth to that charge, it’s all the more reason to listen to the album again. Believe me, you’ll want to. This is a piece of work far too thorny and bewildering to fully process the first time through, or the second or third time for that matter. Those who persist will be continually rewarded by an artist who is evidently emboldened by his outsized ambitions and an album over-stuffed with original ideas.