Owen Pallett would love to have us believe that he decided to stop calling his solo project "Final Fantasy" in order to distinguish himself from the popular video-game series that gave him the name. There's certainly truth to that. With Pallett's popularity steadily rising, a cease-and-desist order had to be just around the bend. And fans of the series probably got more than they bargained for in taking home one of his records thinking it contained music from the games.
But his chucking of the moniker in the weeks leading up to the release of his latest album, Heartland, more than likely holds a deeper significance. This is his most accomplished work to date, and he probably just wants to be taken seriously as a musician from here on out. Pallett's release of the new record under his real name seems to communicate a desire to distance himself from the tongue-in-cheek, joke-band element previous Final Fantasy outings have occasionally exuded. But old habits die hard, and many of his classic quirks and obsessions have come along for the ride.
The last Final Fantasy album, 2006's Polaris Music Prize-winning He Poos Clouds, was, among other things, a meditation on Dungeons & Dragons, with each song, barring two interludes, tackling one of the game's eight schools of magic. His dedication to theme is a throwback to those weird Genesis and Yes records that came out of the prog-obsessed classic-rock era. He loves a good overarching concept.
Heartland is the story of a farmer named Lewis who has a crisis of faith, questioning his belief in Owen Pallett, his creator. It gets difficult to parse out any of the specifics of the story beyond that. Pallett uses Heartland's most straightforward pop song to recount the story of the main character's brutal murders of two characters, named No-Face and Imelda, and the struggle against some unnamed cockatrice. Suffice to say, the album's narrative can be distracting. Consider this his Lamb Lies Down on Broadway: Lyrically, it's all sort of inscrutable and encumbering to follow, but the music is so good it scarcely matters what he's on about.
Pallett's orchestrated twee-pop sound arrives at its most massive form here. Heartland has more hands on deck than any of Pallett's previous releases. "Midnight Directives," the first part of a three-part suite that opens the record, rises to a majestic call-and-response between a full string and brass section and the percussion, while a guitar quietly spins frantic arpeggios at the bottom of the mix. "The Great Elsewhere" skitters by uneasily on a wealth of off-timed, interlocking melodic and rhythmic elements that only start to make sense when played on top of one another. "Lewis Takes Off His Shirt" dabbles lightly in electronics; a sequenced synth line gives the song a rollicking sense of forward motion as the strings and brass float effortlessly overhead. The music positively brims with intricately arranged moving parts. That said, the guy has a lot to learn in the way of simplicity and directness.
Heartland only ditches the wall of sound act a few times, and they're the best songs. "Lewis Takes Action" works wonders with a '60s rock beat and some girl-group-influenced backing vocals. Later in the album, the piano ballad "E Is for Estranged" provides a much needed break in the action following the supremely busy "Flare Gun." But those quiet moments always come with a heaping dose of the album's crazy story, and the constant references to Heartland's bizarre cast of characters never go down smoothly.
Granted, Pallett has made serious strides in setting up the story: Heartland's lyrics were available months in advance of the album's release, and 2008's Spectrum, 14th Century EP introduced many of the characters that come into play on Heartland. But any record that requires you to listen to another record in order to understand the lyrics might be a little too ambitious with the narrative.
Heartland finally finds the notoriously self-deprecating Pallett taking his musical ambitions out of the bedrooms and basements that birthed them, with the 50-piece Czech Symphony Orchestra in tow. Approach this one either of two ways: throw the lyric sheet out the window, let the record wash over you and get lost in the dynamic interplay between the myriad instruments at play. Or get serious about it and spend weeks deep down in the farms and prairies of Spectrum trying to decipher the lay of the land. Either way, Heartland has given you a lot to work with.
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