There are a couple of good reasons why Owen Pallett isn’t one of the most popular artists in the world. His former moniker, Final Fantasy, rendered him a little un-Googleable, and marked him as overly nerdy from the outset. He titled his last record He Poos Clouds. And up until now, his output has ranged from gorgeously accessible tunes to weird songs with a deranged level of musical complexity.
Heartland changes things. He’s found a balance between his tendency to towards the idiosyncratic and his talent at four-chord wonder pop. Sure, there’s one track here that sounds a little like a sonic terrorist attack, but there’s also -Lewis Takes His Shirt Off’, a charmingly synthy number that deserves to get stuck in heads the world over. There’s -Tryst With Mephistopheles’, which, unusually for an Owen Pallett song, actually has a bassline. And on every track, he sings with a sublime charm and confidence that his earlier works never revealed. The result is his finest album yet.
He hasn’t dumbed down, far from it. These are pop songs, no doubt, but the use of orchestral flourishes to stunning effect here is the mark of a master. The standout track, -The Great Elsewhere’ is the best example. It starts with Nico Muhly’s backward keys, developing into a slow melancholy meander – until it abruptly changes pace and grows into an explosive epic with thunderous drumming, something that challenges Arcade Fire’s most inspired moments.
He’s not any less nerdy either. Heartland has a plot, something like a Flann O’Brien-penned RPG, with cockatrices and seduction aplenty. The land of the title is Spectrum, a world in which Owen is the sole deity. He falls in love with a pious farmer by the name of Lewis, who’s not entirely sure about the whole thing, and that’s where the trouble starts. Before long there’s war, rebellion and deicide.
Thankfully, it feels less like he’s walking us through a story than as if he’s playing us the folk songs that arose in its wake. The album isn’t devoted to its plotline: it’s more of a device that allows Pallett to run free with his lyrics, conjuring epic scenes to match the music. These lyrics are good enough to make the plot something that actually matters to the listener.
Cosmetic touches like his name-change aside, Pallett is certainly taking his music more seriously now. This is an album of ambition tempered with a mature softness of touch, an album that never once seems to be trying too hard. Heartland is probably not going to make Owen Pallett into the international star his fans may want him to be, but it shows that he certainly deserves it.
Download ‘Lewis Takes His Shirt Off’.