After 2006's cheekily titled He Poos Clouds walked away with the inaugural Polaris Music Prize, Owen Pallett — the artist formerly known as Final Fantasy — was catapulted from relative obscurity to international acclaim. Needless to say, the loss of anonymity was accompanied by the pressure to produce an equally mind-blowing followup. Now, almost four years and two good-but-not-great EPs later, comes Heartland, a lush orchestral epic of a concept album that delightfully exceeds expectations.
Pallett wastes no time seizing his listeners’ attention, opening with the fantastic “Midnight Directives.” Against a backdrop of deftly looped pizzicato bursts and typically gorgeous violin flourishes, he introduces the album’s storyteller, Lewis, who leaves behind his family and an unplanted field in search of higher meaning. As the album unfurls, we witness his struggle to come to grips with his creator — the godhead known as “Owen.” Musical and narrative high points are carefully interwoven, as when the frenetic drums of the “Great Unknown” soundtrack Lewis’s attempt to proselytize to a fellow resident of Spectrum, an episode that leaves him with a spear in his shoulder. Our protagonist’s quest comes to a head in the triumphant “Tryst with Mephistopheles,” in which he confronts Owen and drives an iron spike into his eyes, crying “Your light is spent!” and “I will not be your fuel any more.”
In other words, there’s a lot more to be gleaned plot-wise from Heartland than any Final Fantasy release to date. That said, no one should take a pass due to an aversion to poring over lyrics sheets: The record is bursting at the seams with musical quality and variety. While the album is unquestionably best digested as a whole, standout tracks like “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” and “E is for Estranged” will entrench Pallett’s standing among the foremost pop musicians in the world.