For a guy who's been composing since the tender age of thirteen, including some for bands such as Grizzly Bear and Arcade Fire in recent years, Owen Pallett has always had a certain childish charm about his music; the fact that he won the Polaris Music Prize for an album called He Poos Clouds should particularly put this in perspective. Under the name Final Fantasy, Pallett released music that was simultaneously gorgeous and esoteric, loaded with random video game references and sophomoric jokes delivered with such a genuineness that it was difficult not to in the very least appreciate. However, all that has changed... well, somewhat. For his latest release, Heartland, Pallett has decided to drop the name and begin anew, now working under his own name. With this seems to have come a slightly more mature approach to his songwriting (which was already a great strength of his), and as a result his first album away from the Final Fantasy moniker is his best yet.
Heartland is a concept album of sorts, revolving around a farmer named Lewis and his relationship with the God of his world, Spectrum, whose name is (of all things) Owen. Granted, this is a bit of a hark back to his earlier work, but this element is hardly an overpowering one, and while the lyrics keep the story quite ambiguous, it's neither hard to follow nor particularly over the top. Given Pallett's composing background though, it should come as no surprise that what's really special about this album are the orchestral arrangements. He really pulls out all the proverbial stops and just runs with his ideas, but doing so in a tasteful fashion and he avoids getting too carried away or self indulgent. With as popular as orchestral indie rock has been since Funeral came out six years ago, it's not only impressive that he's able to carve his own niche in the genre, but do so without coming across as pretentious as well.
There is an unexpected diversity to the musical mood as well, as demonstrated by perhaps the two best tracks on the album, Keep the Dog Quiet and Flare Gun. Dog is incredibly dark and brooding, with an intense build up that begins with a bare pizzicato and Pallett's soft, Arcade Fire-referencing lines. Soon however the strings begin to creep up and grow in strength, along with Pallett himself, whose voice is soaring by the song's climax. Flare Gun, on the other hand, is a far more cheerful and whimsical piece, though every bit as alluring - its highly upbeat piano, horns, and percussion seem befitting for a nineties John Hughes movie almost. and Pallett's vocals, while ultimately sounding the same, give off a much more playful aura here. Soon before the track's end, it winds itself down before seamlessly slipping into the following, melancholic E Is for Estranged.
Heartland does feel very much like Pallett striking out on his own (despite having only shed a moniker) and taking himself a bit more seriously, but it's also assuring that he isn't taking himself too seriously in the process. He's continuing to grow phenomenally as a musician and composer, and even more importantly sacrificing nothing to achieve this. Heartland is chock full of outstanding arrangements and melodies, but more importantly it feels like Pallett has created something that is truly his own.