Backroad Librarian: Sodbuster Avenger

The new album by a Toronto indie musician sings Midwestern self-determination in a sci-fi key.

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album review
Heartland
Owen Pallett
Domino Records, 2010

If there were a soundtrack to the American Midwest, then surely roots rockers like Springsteen and Mellencamp would be well-represented. You’d have some Kansas City jazz from the ‘30s, some mid-century Motown, maybe a track or two by Twin Cities punk pioneers Hüsker Dü.

But a wispy, classically trained songwriter from Toronto, whose breakout album involved reinterpreting the eight schools of magic from the role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons? I know, you’re skeptical, and yet Owen Pallett’s latest album, Heartland, looks deep into the psyche of the agrarian Midwest. The heartland of the album’s title isn’t necessarily American—the album’s twelve songs take place within the fictional land of Spectrum—but Pallett’s lushly orchestrated tales of a young farmer throwing off the chains that have bound him recall the populist parables of William Jennings Bryan, if only Bryan could have played the violin. Here is a densely allegorical fable of self-determination.

To understand the convoluted plot arc of Heartland, you almost have to start with Spectrum, 14th Century, a five-song EP that Pallett released, under the moniker Final Fantasy, back in 2008. With this collection of “fake field recordings,” Pallett establishes his alter ego, Owen, as the not particularly benevolent deity of Spectrum, who sings: “My appetite is endless / The people defenseless / This land is big, this land is bigger / But never as big as the mouth of The Singer.” Owen-the-deity may rule over Spectrum, but with baddies like the haughty No Face roaming the land, the power-hungry god looks to recruit a virtuous warrior who will do his bidding. “Owen and I walk among the plots,” our unnamed hero sings. “I’m guided by the slightest touch / With his fingertips upon my neck / I’m made to be a marionette.”

Owen Pallett, encore for “Final Fantasy”

Flash forward to Heartland. Owen’s protégé, whose name we learn is Lewis, has left his farm, his wife, and his daughter to serve his creator. He spurs his horse up the side of a mountain amidst the Wagnerian bombast of “Mount Alpentine,” and he smothers a lover with his bare hands on the lilting “Red Sun No. 5.” “My every move is guided by the bidding of The Singer,” Lewis exults. “The night is split by the whistle of my amber whip / And the fire from my fingers.” Yet, by the end of the next track, “The Great Elsewhere,” disillusionment has started to set in. Against a backdrop of swirling strings and herky-jerky drum programming (Pallett has said that he wrote Heartland with the image of “putting so many notes on the page that the paper turned black”), Lewis cries out from the battlefield to an indifferent god: “How many islands will surrender to the blunderbuss? / And how long must we sail before you show your face to us?”

“The Great Elsewhere” represents the high-water mark of Lewis’ devotion to Owen—and the turning point of the album. On the following track, the wryly titled “Oh Heartland, Up Yours!,” Lewis declares that “I will not sing your praises,” a sentiment that blossoms into full-throated defiance on the standout “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt.” Here, Pallett juxtaposes the sensuous beauty of the Midwestern landscape with the spectacle of Lewis’ lean, muscular torso: “The heat of prairie summer, impossible to take / I grab the hem and lift the fabric over my sweet head.” The song’s recurring refrain (“I’m never gonna give it to you”) takes on a double meaning, wherein Lewis withholds both body and soul from his former master. In real life, Owen Pallett is gay, and the homoerotic undercurrent of Owen-the-deity’s relationship to the young, headstrong farmer who once served him is an important aspect of Heartland. Laughing, unencumbered, Lewis rejects Owen’s advances and rides off into the distance: “As for me, I am a vector, I am muscle, I am bone / The sun upon my shoulders and the horse between my legs / This is all I know.”

At this point, the stage is set for “Tryst with Mephistopheles,” the album’s penultimate track and the scene of Lewis and Owen’s final confrontation. Shoes untied, Lewis stumbles as he climbs the ridge, his eyes fixed upon the summit. “Your light is spent,” he cries as he plunges an iron spike into Owen’s eye, summoning the image of that golden spike that completed the transcontinental railroad, cinching together East and West in a dream of imperial domination. “The sun sped cross the plains,” Pallett sings, “like that cinematic moment where humanity and nature collide.” It’s an ambiguous moment, the vultures descending on Owen’s dismembered body as Lewis walks to the edge of the cliff and relieves himself, “listening for the spatter thirty floors below.” Lewis is free, his destiny his own. So does he beat his sword back into a plowshare and preside over a peaceful, liberated Spectrum? Or is there, inevitably, another despot waiting in the wings?

Presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan speaking in Columbus, WI, October 3, 1900

Perhaps, in all seriousness, the case of William Jennings Bryan is an instructive one. In 1896, Bryan captured the Democratic nomination for the presidency with his renowned Cross of Gold speech, riding a populist wave of disenchantment with the excesses of Wall Street. Yet Bryan lost the general election to William McKinley, his coalition of farmers and miners from the Mountain West too tenuous to overcome the business interests of the moneyed Northeast. Although he would run again in 1900 and 1908 (and would even serve, briefly, as Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State), it was as an outsider, a kind of prophet in the desert, that Bryan would make his greatest impact. And, perhaps, so it is with Lewis.

“We’ve written the way the universe will go,” Lewis sings on the album’s spare, almost ghostly final track. Is this quietism or transcendence? Pallett doesn’t say. Instead, he leaves us with the image of Lewis, addressing (I like to think) the family that he left behind at the album’s beginning: “The sun is up. My arms are wide. I am a good man, I am yours.”

Author’s note: The album can be streamed, in its entirety, here.

 

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