My mind is a record player and I forever set the needle on one broken record after another. The label names the song as "Something Facile" by an artist named Who Cares???? (extra punctuation theirs) This record is everywhere, full of dumb arrangements and lyrics I can't enjoy even when drunk. My inbox is brimming with announcements that they are doing a split single with Really? Whatever!! and my RSS feed shows at least two different blogs slightly recasting the same email I just got as news items. No one I know in real life has heard of either Who Cares??? or Really? Whatever!! They are posting Stone Temple Pilots or Duran Duran lyrics on their status updates and I am sitting alone in a room pulling my hair our, wondering why everybody is piling the world up with dreck, stacking it on the dreck of yesteryear? What's the point?
Just as I'm comparing sniper rifle prices online and planning a lunch walk by the bell tower, I hear the celestial whine of an organ, a demure soar of a voice. A violin swoops in like a sudden bird. Stage lights click on and things start getting a little Busby Berkeley. Titters of martial snare, more swooping melodies, thick cashmere blankets of strings are laid over me and then playfully torn away. I'm being spun around in my desk chair by sinewy smiling dancers and a set of muted rainbows descends from the proscenium arch that I never noticed right up there until now. I am swept up in "Midnight Directives," the opening track of Owen Pallett's first album under his name and my every concern is washed away like massage oil down a spa shower drain.
In a CBC radio interview in 2007, he said Heartland was to be an album about nothingness; and maybe it is. John Cage famously said "I have nothing to say and I am saying it, and that is poetry." Nothingness should not be confused with emptiness. Emptiness is a condition whereas nothingness is the result of conscious processes with the ultimate goal of erasing any traces of the effort, and if that was his goal, he failed miserably. Heartland is a shimmering example of the current thread of art pop that makes no bones about embracing the difficulty with which it is wrought. Nothing sounds easy on Heartland; "The Great Elsewhere" is as fervent as a John Adams orchestral locomotion with the mannered charm of "Do the Locomotion." Pallett's music is accessible, but you have to stop and marvel at the dazzling scaffold he uses to gain that access.
"Oh Heartland, Up Yours!" sits at the physical and metaphoric center of this record. Perhaps a melancholy joke on the X-Ray Spex anthem of untetheredness "Oh Bondage, Up Yours!", Pallett's song trudges through its verses with the "quiet dignity" artists like to attribute to regular people whose lives they would not in a million years live. At the chorus he achieves transcendence with not the words "From the white light in the bedroom to the priest with his broken arrows/there's a method to the madness/they will fade in an expression of sadness" but with the actual quiet dignity his voice lends these words. For a moment, he aches like a teary stare out a window before turning back to the vague grind of the day until that feeling seizes him again. You want this hapless protagonist to take flight, but life is not the musical theatre number this music stops just short of being. Instead he repeats "I will not sing your praises" over a slow fade back to gray nothingness, disappearing in the baseline. Breathtaking.
There is a Beckettian stasis across Heartland's songs that make this record a bit of a blur. Also Owen Pallett is an Alan Parsons Projectionist; his songs are shaped by so mannered a hand that they lose a lot of transitional drama, but then this is supposed to be about nothingness. Not much is planted on the garden path from one nothing to another, I guess. It doesn't matter, for every sigh resignation there is a moment of glorious defiance: the swirl of strings behind the words 'I'm never gonna give it to you" on "Lewis Takes off His Shirt" is the kind of thing that make you break into a run. "Flare Gun" is a madcap Kurt Weill escapade with more music packed into its two-and-a-half minutes than capable by a herd of Animal Collectives.
The album slumps and saunters to the culmination "What Do You Think Will Happen Now?" barely audible muttering twining up with lilting singing to form a rope. Will the protagonist of Heartland use that rope to hang himself or to stage an escape? Is he now resolute like the spirit of those dwelling in the Heartland, sturdy and stalwart, or is he broken and desolate like a town with a closed mill? What do you think will happen now? I know what will happen; I'll play this album again and again like the Doctrine of Eternal Recurrence predicts and bask eternally in its gorgeous, elegant, radiant nothingness.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com