One year ago, a mere three weeks into what was 2009, nearly every indie site in existence was hailing Merriweather Post Pavilion as the best album of the year. Our own fearless leader, Jeff, was pulling his hair out over whether to do the same, torn between the conflict of calling it as he saw it (an unparalleled feat) and holding off for the sake of pure common sense. Now, some have ridiculed me for starting my end of year lists in November, so leaving eleven plus months unchecked seems ridiculous. After all, Veckatimest, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix and Bitte Orca collectively showed up about four months later. But, of course, readers of Treble will notice that the album did indeed end up to be our album of the year. So, was it self-fulfilling prophecy or mere coincidence? (Tune into this season’s episodes of Lost to find out). All this is to say that Owen Pallett is trumping the boys in Animal Collective by a week. Two weeks into the year, I can tell you that Heartland is and will be one of the best albums released in 2010.
Though the review material came to me still bearing the name, Final Fantasy, Heartland is the album that, somewhat anticlimactically, reveals the man behind the curtain, Owen Pallett. Pallett’s fans have long been aware of the man manipulating the strings, in this case literally, for some time. If nothing else, the name change will cease to confuse fanboys from buying soundtracks for epic video games featuring characters with gravity-defying hair and impossibly long swords. And no, there’s no symbolism in that, is there? Sheesh. Pallett has always been well respected with his own pocket of followers after contributing to Arcade Fire and releasing the 2006 inaugural Polaris Prize winning album, He Poos Clouds. Heartland will be that rare album, the one that will spread by word of mouth and place Owen Pallett’s name onto the lips of the masses.
Heartland is, at least in description, a theme album about an ultra-violent farmer named Lewis in the fictional world of Spectrum. I know, it doesn’t sound like a blockbuster, but I’m a sucker for metafiction. (Nerd Alert: I’m reminded of Animal Man finally recognizing he is a machination of creator, Grant Morrison). The album is much more than its description, however; it is a masterpiece of the fusion of classical orchestration and indie pop convention. Pallett has conceived of a cinematic musical of the highest degree, a feat often attempted but never quite realized until now. I suppose if Brian Wilson had tried to weave in a thematic storyline throughout Pet Sounds, in which a teenager goes through life, love, trials and such, praying to a higher power that ends up to be Brian Wilson himself, it would have been similar.
“Red Sun No. 5” is a perfect example of all of the above statements taken together. Equal parts dream pop and intricate layered orchestration, Pallett proves himself not only a master musician and songwriter, but also vocalist. “Lewis Takes Action” follows, and is easily one of the more accessible from Heartland, which is probably why it was chosen as the initial single from the album. The song is part ’60s Spector / girl group pop number, part circus theme, part Sufjan Stevens, and a dash of Italo Calvino. Lyrics such as “My every move is guided by the bidding of the singer” reveal the postmodern metafictional conceits without taking away from the piece as a whole. And, aside from maybe Andrew Bird, who else would have a line such as, “the stony hiss of cockatrice has cast us into serfdom.” The same holds true for the magnificent “The Great Elsewhere,” in which Lewis begins to lose faith in Owen, his creator. Striking vocabulary, uncommon rhymes and a coda that will stand as one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard in all of history make this song alone worth the price of the album. Vinyl copy, here I come.
Throughout Heartland, Pallett makes little tongue-in-cheek references to pop culture (Edwin Starr’s “War,” X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!”), and even his own collaborations (Arcade Fire’s “My Body is a Cage”), adding to the delicious metaficiton. Songs such as “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt,” an easy choice for a second single, is the quintessential display of the different aspects of Heartland. Looped keys and violin progressions, themselves intricately played, serve as backdrop for Pallett’s sing-song lyrics that countermand the message within, that of his character Lewis rising up against him. Or maybe the dichotomy is showing Pallett’s complete disdain for his own character? Sound involved? Well, it is, and that makes for rewarding repeat listens, or simply enjoying the album for any one of the many aspects that Pallett constructs. To call this genius would be hyperbole, for sure, but in this case, it’s well deserved. Welcome to one of the best albums of 2010.
MP3: “Lewis Takes Action”