Owen Pallett would make a fascinating pop icon. He’s doe-eyed and shy, but remarkably charismatic. His virtuosity is not debatable: catch him live and watch in awe as he outlines each instrumental part, using a looping pedal to stack one upon another like bricks, until a song has formed. And he’s eccentric; one has to be to construct an album centering on its protagonist’s realisation of the fact that a singer has created him, and his subsequent rebellion. Pallett is most commonly identified as a violinist, but composer is a more accurate term. On record, Pallett is less obviously brilliant, because it’s not clear how much of the production and instrumental effort was his own. But, given patience and attention, his work comes to life. It spills out of speakers and edges its way into the rest of your life, the sonic texture now a permanent component of your reality.
“Midnight Directives” delves the listener immediately into the fantastic sonic foliage of Pallett’s world. Violins swirl at the periphery like vague animal shapes in the wilderness. Then in the final minute it trips over itself magnificently, becoming impatient, frenzied — hinting at the excitement to come. After a collapse, “Keep the Dog Quiet” builds back up and coasts until peaking at the tense coda, “Mount Alpentine”, and then “Red Sun No. 5” brings us back to calm with the album’s subtlest, most electronic offering.
It is here that the album truly takes flight. “Lewis Takes Action” has the shuffle and melody of a pop song, without forsaking any of Pallett’s trademark fantasy or classicism. Voice traced by the violin melody, Pallett sings of the protagonist’s violent rebellion: “I took a No-Face by his beak/And broke his jaw/He’ll never speak again.” Here, too, emerges the album’s postmodernism, in the protagonist’s acknowledgment of Pallet. “My every move is guided by,” sings Pallett, in the protagonist’s voice, “the bidding of the singer.” “The Great Elsewhere” hints at a return to the subdued electronics of “Red Sun No. 5,” then erupts into an anthem, the off-kilter beat joined by rhythmic violins and soaring vocals. “Oh Heartland, Up Yours” feels as if it were stolen from a musical, but not in a bad way: the arrangement is clever, the melody soothing, the sentiment appealing. “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” reaches the album’s greatest emotional height thus far, culminating in the majestically proclaimed, repeated line, “I’m never gonna give it to you.”
The album climaxes with “Tryst with Mephistopheles.” A minor epic in itself, the song climbs from little more than a steady bass and the sting of self-doubt (“I stumbled on the summit’s path/Clumsy, clumsy/No paragon am I”) to a tremulous murmur of strings, a calm before the storm, wherein the protagonist confronts his creator (“‘Your light is spent! Your light is spent!’ I cried/As I drove the spike into Owen’s eyes”) and is capped by a regal coda, before devolving into fading strings and keyboards. The grace of this song fades into the closing track, “What Do You Think Will Happen Now,” a dissatisfying conclusion to a powerful record, but one that may be artistically necessary to complete the narrative.
Heartland is a cohesive album in the classical, rather than the pop, sense. It’s a theatrical arc — entertaining, but dense. The average twenty-first century listener will have tired of the album in the time it takes to truly sink in. But for those with more patience, or for whom Pallett’s fascinating, archaic lyrics and pristine violin melodies are worth sticking around for, Heartland reveals itself as a masterpiece.