PallettThe first album Owen Pallett released under his own name, “Heartland” was based on a fascinating concept:   A violent farmer was aware he was managed and manipulated by a godlike figure named Owen – and he was determined to confront him.  The fantastical tale is sheathed in a rich, textured mix of avant-garde chamber pop and knotty modern rock.

A child prodigy, Pallett studied violin beginning when he was three years old.  While still in his teens, he composed music for video games, an activity that would influence his career.   After receiving a degree in composition from the University of Toronto, he began recording as Final Fantasy – the name was derived from a popular role-playing video game – and his second album, “He Poos Clouds” won the first Polaris Music Prize, which honors the best full-length album by a Canadian artist.  Pallett also arranged strings for Arcade Fire and the Last Shadow Puppets, an undervalued project featuring Arctic Monkeys’ Alex Turner.  He also scored films and remixed tracks by Grizzly Bear, among others.

Prior to the album’s arrival in 2010, Pallett’s announcement that he would release “Heartland” under his own name indicated a new direction.  To a degree, “He Poos Clouds” and its predecessor “Has a Good Home” foreshadowed “Heartland” with their use of loops, a pristine classical violin-meets-rock blend and unexpected lyrical themes.  (“Has a Good Home” features a song entitled “Learn to Keep Your Mouth Shut, Owen Pallett.”)  The new work was presaged by an EP that, like “Heartland,” was set in the fictional world of Spectrum.  But whereas Pallett appeared a young, gentle soul on the prior discs, on “Heartland” he emphasized power and confrontation to unleash a murderous tale with control and confidence.   The juxtaposition of his sweet voice and the violent narrative was an alluring feature.

In “Heartland,” bold strings, electronics and percussion merged to form a dazzling environment for the tale of Lewis, the violent farmer.  “Midnight Directives,” which opened the album, featured a flurry of strings and skittish percussion that was both beautiful and disorienting as Lewis, in crisis, left his wife, daughter and “an unplanted field” for “a clerical life.”  As it turned out, Lewis was seeking to confront a deity.  “Alpertine” was a brief but dense wash of dissonant strings over which Pallet sang “Karma is the concatenation of your actions” as Lewis tallied the sequence that led to his state of being.

In “Red Sun No. 5,” Pallett sang about what the morning sun revealed to Lewis about his precarious condition.  The title of “Lewis Takes Action” was literal: Lewis confronts a beast, breaks his jaw – “he’ll never speak again” – and makes it clear he will not accept full responsibility for his violence.  “My every move is guided by the singer.”  With its dizzying pizzicato strings and woodwinds against shifting percussion, the musical environment conveyed a sense that the bloody violence occurred when Lewis was in a fugue-like state.  “The Great Elsewhere” was a marvelous marriage of electronica and orchestra with clashing time signatures in the programmed percussion.  The song eased into a lovely, extended coda that fell to silence.  In “Oh Heartland, Up Yours!” a raging Lewis declares he will “seek out his own satisfaction” and derides Owen:  “You wrote me like a Disney kid in cutoffs...Doesn’t work, doesn’t fly, doesn’t handle.”  The song contained Pallett’s most affecting vocal on the disc.

As woodwinds dart with synthesized pulses and under swirling strings, in “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt,” the narrator declared himself reduced to the essence required to attack:  “I am muscle, I am bone/The sun upon my shoulders, the horse between my legs/This is all I know.”

Perhaps its best to leave a secret the resolution of “Heartland.”  In “E is for Estranged,” the character of Owen sung a story that reveals he was aware of his shortcomings as a man and father.  Were they enough to make him a victim worthy of Lewis’ violence?  The rocking “Tryst With Mephistopheles,” with its pulsing bass, and the reprise “What Do You Think Will Happen Next?” round off the tale to a logical end.  The final act was accompanied by theatrical music that seemed to delight in its own invention.

“Heartland” was seen, rightly so, as Pallett’s best work to date, and he performed its songs in many concerts including at major rock festivals in North America and Europe.  Looking back, it seems he was on the road for all of 2010, a year in which he also released another EP, “Swedish Love,” that showcased his mastery of orchestrating for strings.  He did the string arrangements for “The Suburb,” Arcade Fire’s Grammy-winning album, which led to other opportunities:  Along with Arcade Fire’s Will Butler, he composed the Oscar-nominated score for the film “Her.”  In 2014, he released “In Conflict,” yet another beautiful work of orchestral pop and avant-garde rock.  It discarded fantasy themes for his direct and transparent examination of such topics as loneliness, foundering relationships and mental illness.

Given the quality of his subsequent work, “Heartland” was the next step in the prologue to a beautiful, ongoing career.  Majestic, complex yet accessible, it is a splendid album, made so by the abundant gifts and imagination of its creator.