The Spectrum of Understanding
Three months before Heartland was to be released, Owen Pallett did something curious: posting all the lyrics to his forthcoming album online. Perhaps Pallett was just making sure he beat the imminent leak to the punch, and made sure any enterprising blogger was armed with the right lyrics for their insta-reviews. More likely, he was so bristling with pride that he wanted to get them out there. And, given they're this good, Pallett deserves to wear them with pride.
Sending the lyrics out in advance of the music made complete sense given the dense fantasy-world Pallett has authored with Heartland. He first introduced the mythical land of Spectrum on the 2008 EP Spectrum, 14th Century, a set of field-recordings made in league with the members of Beirut, in which Pallett introduced the principles of his forthcoming longplaying drama, setting the stage for the story he tells here.
And the key cast are: The Butcher, AKA Owen Pallett, the indifferent and brutal omniscient deity of the land he's written in song; Cockatrice, a preacher who is a puppet for Pallett, dutifully doing His bidding; Blue Imelda, the sour Queen of Spectrum despised by her people; No-Face, an upper-class socialite who deplores the peasantry; and Lewis, a young farmer whose (homoerotic) love of Owen will lead him to become Spectrum's emancipating chosen one (albeit in unexpected ways).
This Place is a Narrative Mess
Reading the lyrics to Heartland by themselves, the narrative takes shape: Lewis is summoned from his life of agrarian toil, roused into action by the songwriter-as-deity ("my every move is guided by the bidding of the singer"), on an Epic mission to lead a peasant's revolt and dethrone Blue Imelda. But, when things start to go awry, Lewis starts losing his faith, questioning the quest he's on, and the motives of the deity writing the songs ("I shiver with... the indifferences of the Storyteller"). Eventually, Lewis turns on his creator and slays him in a fanciful, symbolic act of the art severing itself from the artist; this chosen one emancipating Spectrum from its true tyrannical hand: that of Owen Pallett. Or, as the LP climaxes: "the author has been removed."
It's an incredibly dense narrative —enough for a novel, really— rich with self-reflexivity, from the moment Pallett mocks his own obvious efforts to stick to the story, early, in "Keep the Dog Quiet" ("the journey once was consequential/now: sequential, sequential, sequential, sequential"; a line that comes after the narrator's confessed "this place is a narrative mess").
But, for those who just throw on the album as music, never listen to its many words, never marvel at its gifted poetry and tease out its rich themes, is this all this lyrical ambition essentially inconsequential? If a conceptual narrative falls on an album and no one really hears it, does it really exist?
Still, the Violin Plays On
Pallett plays parlor games there, too. His deft arrangements never foreground voice or WORDS, instead making his singing one tiny element in a massive, orchestral work rich with strings and woodwinds; His Master's Voice verily buried in the mix. These are, in their own way, pop-songs, bright melodies and recurring parts that exist aside from the narrative; music that can be just music. Those who tune in only for the tunes may find a moment's pause at the oddness of a line like "I grabbed No-Face by his beak and broke his jaw/he'll never speak again," but never go any further; never seek its meaning, never make the requisite connections to understand Heartland in all its grandeur.
In an ideal world —a fantasy realm, perhaps— listeners would come to know the lyrics over time; would, in reveling in the girl-group influenced "Lewis Takes Action," the electro-flecked "Lewis Takes Off His Shirt," and the meta-fictional orchestra study "E is for Estranged," slowly piece together this fertile narrative (under)world lurking beneath all the keening orchestral parts.
But, rare is the new-millennial listener with the time, the patience, or the imagination to come slowly to such awareness; to put in all that effort. So, Pallett put the lyrical cart before the musical horse, and threw his words out into the world, politely suggesting people learnt the plot before they sat down to his opera. When you've spent years toiling over an album as immense as Heartland, marshaling Arcade Fire members and Nico Muhly and a Czech orchestra in service of your grand narrative ambition, why let the digital era sell it short?
Record Label: Domino
Release Date: January 12, 2010