One of the most gorgeous things I’ve heard so far this year. As usual a thoughtful and thorough review.
Words: David McGowan
Turning disappointments into daydreams, Owen Pallett has created a playful, wistful, wipe-away-the-tears-and-smile kind of a record; a record to lose yourself in as you trudge through the snow.
’Heartland’ is one of those words, like ‘Motherland’, that more often denotes an imaginary space than anything physically real. It’s the space of people happy to fence other people in (or out) of a made up line on a map, or people pining away for some imagined utopia. And it seems to me that negotiating the illusionary and dreamlike terrain of such lands is Pallett’s motivation here. It begins as illusion, as story, Pallett waving goodbye to loved ones (“left my daughter and wife”) as he heads off to… where? “Twelve songs of exquisitely crafted pop-symphonic beauty” would be one answer. Another could be “the land inside his head”, full of old mountains and places with red suns (or sons?). Geographical points are referenced once or twice (I’m too lazy to check if Mount Albertine exists in reality) but Pallett’s journey feels temporal as well as spatial, travelling back in time to “the fourteenth century” or glimpsing, as if in a snapshot of faded Americana, “a Disney kid”. And such bendy shenanigans take us to the heart of the land, the heart of the matter – illusion and uncertainty, a.k.a LOVE, that most shifting and wonderful but strangest of terrain.
And, like love, this record could kill you as well as kiss you – “I took an Old Face by his beak and broke his jaw/ he’ll never speak again.” Tellingly, this line is delivered just as tenderly as when Pallett sings, “curled her in my arms and pressed her to my heart/ and pressed my hand o’er her lips.” Elsewhere he sings, “With him I have an ending/ with him I have completion” – all very romantic and life-affirming but this is early on on the album, suggesting in truth a not-quite completion. Romance is never a full-stop. The story, and Pallett’s survey of the Heartland, goes on.
This is a twelve track concerto served best with your iPod set to ‘repeat’ and listened to on an endless loop. It would be criminal to pick out individual tracks, or playlist it with lesser beings! With looped listenings you’d probably notice new details on any record but ‘Heartland’ is so layered, and Pallett’s voice so twinkling and mysterious, that it feels as if the album is deliberately keeping things from you, until, dear listener, you are ready for or worthy of them. ‘Mount Albertine’ clocks in at under a minute, a sampler for its referencing later down the line. It took me several listens to get the lyrics about cultural consumption in ‘What Do You Think Will Happen?’, happy as I was to imagine it, as per the accompanying music, as some sort of pleasantly bubbling mysticism. And the image of “the priests with their broken arrows” has stuck itself in my brain like a painting hung on a gallery wall and won’t go away. This is what this album does. Beautiful.
“But what does it sound like?!?” I hear you cry (see? I got good ears). Well like I say, it’s layered, but those layers are deceptively simple. A pop group heart beats beneath the electro-orchestral body. Junior Motown drums, rinky-dink pianos, martial percussion, church organs and computer bleeps that fizz and crackle like an aspirin in Coke. And segue sounds that take us from one track to another – a wind-like howl, an old clanking machine winding down… and the whole album has this personality to it, its violin swoops and elegant little flourishes making you think you’re listening to what Disney film soundtracks might be like if they used their powers for good and not evil.
”I’m never gonna give it to you,” sings Pallett, in a voice that’s defiant yet fragile. But he’s given us this album, for which we should be thankful.