Heartland

18.01.10 Words by: Charlie Jones

I have always thought it was so audacious of Owen Pallett to use the title of a much-loved Japanese RPG as the moniker for his solo project – despite it being done out of his own nerdy D&D love. Well It does scream “copyright infringement” and I would imagine it could have made it rather difficult for those using proto-mp3 sharing program Soulseek some years ago to actually find his work amid the Nobuo Uematsu compositions. I imagine. Ahem.

Anyway, Pallett appears to have ditched the video game reference, now referring to his solo work with his own name (although most of the press for this record seems to still say Final Fantasy, so… I give up) and brings us ‘Heartland’, a diversion from the ice-cold simplicity of the 2006 ‘He Poos Clouds’ and a return to the land previously explored in ‘Spectrum, 14th Century’, developing some of the EP’s ideas and experimentation. Pallett’s love of the conceptual, of fantasy and of dealing with faith (or lack thereof) are all evident in this record, which forms a sometimes abstract narrative ‘concerning a farmer named Lewis and the fictional world of Spectrum.  The songs are one-sided dialogues with Lewis, a young, ultra-violent farmer, speaking to his creator.’

This year-long labour of love is a very different beast to the last full-length release, being much bigger in scope and content than ‘He Poos Clouds’ – and therefore less limited and more diverse, but never simply opulent or ridiculous. One could say that it lacks the quiet, cold infectiousness of the previous long player, but the presence of the Czech Symphony Orchestra would be wasted if a couple of simple, clean, string arrangements drove the entire record. There is greater contrast on this record and a sense of intelligent dynamics, with theatrical ascension dipping into quiet contemplation. Strings skip lightly over a yelping, discordant chorus in Lewis Takes Action, then punchy horns blast throughout Keep the Dog Quiet. The same depth of contrast applies to the vocals – Pallett’s unadulterated faux-Britishness is at the fore in E is for Estranged, with its odd falsetto echoes of Across the Universe, yet album opener Midnight Directives, with its lush orchestration fidgeting against a faintly bossanova backdrop, has echoes of Arthur Russell in the heady echo and otherworldly tone of its lyrics.

It’s all too easy to associate orchestral compositions with pomp and pretention, but these pieces are created with the sensibilities of electronic music always in mind – a fact that is in no way accidental. One may wonder, particularly in the case of Lewis Takes off his Shirt, if the same result could not have been achieved solely through electronic means – but that would be missing the point. The divergence of, and the sometimes uneasy relationship between, the digital and the analogue creates bewitching anthems which are happily awkward, and reference Postal Service or LCD Soundsystem (most evident in the rumbling build-up that is most of The Great Elsewhere) just as frequently as Decemberists or Sufjan Stevens (see Tryst With Mephistopheles).

The death of the album is old news now and evidently artists are still going to create pieces that are a series of tracks if their artistic vision demands it. Although these are individual pop songs in their own right, it is vitally important to hear this as a concerto, as a series of movements – not because of its conceptual nature but because Owen Pallett has an obvious skill for creating powerful narratives in music. Perhaps some subtlety has been sacrificed but this album is never based on ‘more-is-more’ – rather what is necessary to tell the tale, what is natural in the unfolding of each progression. Although that songwriting this good would probably be solid enough to stand up even if it were just Pallett and a violin, the fact it is complemented by elegant, perfectly arranged instrumentation is not gilding the lily, it’s simply apt.

Have a read of Charlie’s review of Animal Collective’s EP ‘Fall To Be Kind’. It’s spot on.

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