A simple organ chord opens a multi-layered journey of the self in Owen Pallett’s Heartland.  Hearthland investigates song-building and personal identity in an often strange narrative journey of a character named Lewis–it’s a journey as expansive as it is personal and told through music that is of the moment but  echoes the past.

“Midnight Directives,” begins the album with a simple organ chords, then adds slow, ascending “oohing” vocals, almost like a heavenly chorus.  Very quickly, these are taken over by the driving speed of the Pallett’s lyrics, and eventually, a frantic violin.  It’s a track that’s ambitious and energetic and matches the raw optimism of the Lewis speaker as he abandons farm and family to journey towards a different self, “a clerical life.”

Although the music in the first three tracks is interesting, “Red Sun No. 5” is an early standout. The steady beat of a synthesizer slowly paces this song, which is about a moment of personal discovery. The tone is tinged with melancholy, but also the hope of revelation. This moment of softness is later matched by the stirring “E is for Estranged,” which features mainly Pallett’s delicate vocals and whimpering violin.

These moments of pathos are balanced by the playful song-building of “Lewis Takes Action” and the poppy chorus of “Lewis Takes off His Shirt.” The former is something like a New Orleans funeral march, but bubbling over with a shimmering exuberance. Here he performs it live with full orchestration. When he performed this in Madison, he recorded a loop of each part and performed over the loops. It was impressive:

Although never directly spelled out in the lyrics, the speaker’s often anachronistic narrative feels entrenched in contemporary explorations of sexuality, gender roles and other identity struggles.  In “Red Sun No. 5”, Lewis leaves his wife for a “him” who offers “an ending” and “completion.” Later in “Tryst with Mephistopheles”, in a moment of sheer meta-self-destruction, the Lewis speaker gleefully sings about brutally murdering “Owen,” his creator, with a bouncy sing-song tone.  Hiding behind the irony of the lyric-music combination in “Mephistopheles” is a real question about the nature of creativity and what hiding behind another identity really means.

The contemporary and the past also overlap in Heartland’s music. Although the album is highly produced and layered, as with many contemporary albums (such as Arcade Fire–for whom Pallett often does string arrangements), certain songs seem built off musical styles from centuries ago. For instance in “Great Elsewhere,” Pallett begins with a few measures on the keyboard and from there he builds and sweeps. Yet, as far away as the “Great Elsewhere” appears to veer from its simple opening, underneath all is still the basic keyboard theme we first heard:

In here is a nod back to the fugue form, popular during the Baroque movement.  The key is to build different patterns off the same theme.  Bach was a true master of the form and it is often a thrill to try to track a theme underneath all of the layers he puts on top of it:

Here’s another famous fugue from Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas; try not to throw yourself into a pyre after this one–it’s depression for the ear:

What’s so significant about Heartland is that underneath all the layers of stuff: the unique musicality, the themes, the meta-narrative, the looping and the references–Heartland still feels incredibly personal and moving.  Pallett’s voice is flexible and clear in an age when everyone sounds manufactured.  Heartland is an album that respects the significance of the past, but looks to the future.