Warning! The Canadian composer of the album you're looking at uses big words like "concatenation" — once to define karma, and then again to heed a plague of locusts. He's fond of even grander clusters of instruments: Over the last few years, Pallett has contributed string arrangements (and other orchestral filigree) to records by Arcade Fire, Grizzly Bear, Pet Shop Boys, Mika and other proponents of luxe pop. Here, he combines the Czech Symphony Strings, the St. Kitts' Winds and a pack of Reykjavik-recorded fellow multi-instrumentalists to create a one-man opera, one in which the protagonist slays his author.
It cannot be denied that Pallett is fearlessly nerdy: His last solo album, 2006's He Poos Clouds, celebrated the various schools of magic known only to those who play Dungeons & Dragons. It was released under his previous moniker, Final Fantasy, a nod to the role-playing Japanese video game. But on Heartland it's clearer than ever that he's an extraordinarily gifted composer and a master of unexpected instrumental juxtapositions. One moment his orchestrations undulate and bubble like Philip Glass; a few seconds later, they soar with the sophistication and exuberance of Leonard Bernstein. Sometimes they do both: Heartland establishes its tension with the galloping momentum and violent crescendos of "Midnight Directives," then builds suspense with the snaky Latin rhythms of "Keep the Dog Quiet." Pallett sings with understated sincerity throughout, but in "Lewis Takes Action," the disconnect between the wistfulness of his melodies and the bloodlust of lyrics like "I'll bludgeon ’til the body's cold" reaches unnerving extremes.
The story gets stranger as it progresses, and eventually turns in on itself. The hero admits his disillusionment in the album's catchiest track, "Oh Heartland, Up Yours!" and in "Lewis Takes Off His Shirt," he resolves to resist his fate. Pallett himself is referenced by name; he's Storyteller, Creator, The Great White Noise, even Owen, and he's the devil ultimately defeated in the climactic "Tryst With Mephistopheles." None of this will make any sense unless you're paying complete attention, but Heartland rewards close listening by creating its own fantastic world, one where utter earnestness battles po-mo hijinks. Neither loses.