Heartland is another record I’ve been hankering after playing at DRC since we started, and my determination to play it is what inspired me, mischievously, to set us a theme of ‘Concept Albums’, aware of the horror which that phrase inspires in Tom and Rob.
Because that’s what Heartland is: set in a fictional land called Spectrum, it concerns a young, violent farmer called Lewis, who is plucked from the fields and anointed for some higher purpose, embarks on an adventure, realises his status as a character within a song, rebels against his god / author (who is, of course, called Owen), who he then kills, and, possibly, assumes control of his own destiny. Or something. Sonically, Heartland is like a techno-classical soundtrack to the most amazing all-night role-playing session ever, and it’s also amazingly, beautifully listenable. It’s one of my very favourite records of the last few years, and I played it for months and months almost as instrumental music, before I even started taking in the narrative conveyed in the lyrics.
I’m lucky enough to know Owen Pallett (in an online sense) from his posts on ILM and his Twitter. We talk online reasonably frequently and occasionally exchange emails too, so I thought I’d ask if he’d like to say a bit more about Heartland for the benefit of our little club. Being a gracious and amenable individual, he did just that. This is what he said.
Owen writes: When Heartland came out I tried to have my cake and eat it too. I made a concept record but then asked that people ignore that fact; all I said was “Lewis is a farmer living in the fictional world of Spectrum.” So I spent most of 2010 being asked to explain the plot…
There have been some very detailed explanations online that people have written, parsing out all the references and annotating everything. At first, I thought I might do it myself, a la Barthes’ “A Lover’s Discourse”, but then I thought that’d deny listeners the pleasure of figuring it out for themselves. And they did; check out the Alpentine website for some pretty concise breakdowns, and Nick Thornborrow, who wrote an amazingly insightful and beautifully illustrated comic that offered up his own wordless interpretation of the events.
Lewis and myself, just like Barthes and his beloved in “A Lover’s Discourse”, are the same thing. Written by the same person, so it’s a false dialogue. The final track, “What Do You Think Will Happen Now”, is meant to allude to this falseness of the narrative: Lewis is doing this Puck-style “give me your hands” monologue which is actually a critique of quantitative listening, of aggregation, the fact that numerical critique leaves no room for human shit, human dirt. It’s not a very Lewis-y monologue, but what has been? Our voices are entwined and inextricable. Then, my own voice, entering halfway through and saying “oh my god get me out of the house I’ve been working too long on this record”, becomes the more concrete statement, and the theatre disintegrates.
There’s meant to be a liminal quality to me and Lewis; the whole record could be entirely set in a fictional world, or it could be me singing about my own issues. The most liminal moments are where voices are overlaid: “What Do You Think Will Happen Now”, and also “Oh Heartland, Up Yours”; I hoped that the sentiment “My homeland / I will not sing your praises here” would echo as being about both Spectrum and Canada, which has its own issues.
Lewis’ execution of Owen can be taken in many different ways. Is it a rehearsal of an in-real-life suicide/murder, like Mishima’s “Patriotism”? Is it symbolic of a cutting off of one’s dishonest narrative voice, the voice that lets a rhyming dictionary shape his meaning? Is it meant to be a commentary on in-real-life atheism, the physical execution of that which is said to govern you? Or a Boulez-style patricidal version of modernism? I thought about it from all these viewpoints and in the end, I just went with what sounded coolest, onomatopoeically. That’s kind of the burden of lyric-writing, you’ve got to make it sound good!
Musically, I wanted to try and create an arrangement language for this album that didn’t sound like Glass or Bach or Shostakovich or any other typically “Classical” composer. I didn’t fully end up succeeding; The Drift attempts the same thing and gets further than I did. But I tried it out.
So I basically tried to interpret various synthesis ideas and re-imagine them as orchestral music. “Midnight Directives” and “The Great Elsewhere” feature arrangements that are transcriptions of generative music patches I’d built in Max/MSP. “Flare Gun” and “Keep The Dog Quiet” both feature heavy noise gating and unnatural panning, which I wanted to sound more like Planningtorock’s “Have It All” than Prokofiev.
When I play “Lewis Takes Action” live I run my violin through a ring modulator at the end: for the recording, I transcribed that solo with all the resultant overtones reflected in the winds and strings. “Lewis Takes Off His Shirt” has the orchestra behaving like it’s controlled by an eight-step sequencer. “E Is For Estranged” begins with an approximation of ‘white noise’ with a comb filter running through it. I hoped that listeners would be like “oh, OMD, Cluster, I get it”, instead of “sounds like Gershwin!!”
I listen to albums with the lyric sheet in my hand. I work hard on my lyrics and I don’t like listening to records where the voice is mixed louder than everything else. If it seems like arrogance to think that listeners would sit down and decode this album like a puzzle, I’d just say that this is just the way I listen to albums, repeatedly, trying to figure them out. Conversely, I hope too that people could just put it on and enjoy it!
Tom Listened: I have owned Heartland for a few years now but, as I have it on CD, I have only ‘listened’ to it whilst driving (I don’t tend to listen to CDs in the house – why settle for second best when you can indulge in some prime vinyl?). It’s not really driving music! Whilst there are some great songs on Heartland that are enjoyable enough to let wash over you whilst your mind struggles to cope with the stresses of negotiating British roads, I now know that it requires proper, close attention to get the most out of it and that is something I haven’t really given it as yet. Listening at Record Club, it made a lot more sense but I still feel some way off a proper understanding of how the songs work, in both lyrical and musical capacities, and it’s the sort of record where my lack of comprehension bothers me. I sense it just needs more time and intend to give it that if I ever remember to bring the CD in from the car!
Graham Listened: Given my selection for this round, I probably have no right in commenting on the artistic merits of any of the other selections. With Heartland I don’t feel at all qualified to comment as I haven’t begun to scratch at the surface of it all. Reading the lyrics alongside the first listen of an album was a throwback to my teens and something I haven’t done since. Like Tom said, this needs very close attention and should have just let it wash over me and then picked up the lyric sheet later, trying to immediately tie the story to the music was too much. When I put down the lyric sheets I began to enjoy the music far more and will need to approach a future listen far more carefully.
Rob listened: Nick’s not good at keeping secrets and I figured out fairly early what his choice was going to be. I listened to ‘Heartland’ a couple of times in the run-up to the DRC get-together, enough for it to start to become penetrable, for detail and texture to begin to emerge from the gently babbling brook. I enjoyed it yet more when we listened to it this evening.
It’s fascinating to read Owen’s thoughts – huge thanks to him for taking the time and to Nick for soliciting them. One of our recurrent discussion points is whether artists intend the depths and complexities that we as listeners subsequently find in their recordings. I guess the answer has to be ‘it depends’ but it’s pleasing to know that in some cases, and in this case in particular, incredible care and detailed preparation and planning has gone into the conceptual construction and lyrical execution of the finished work.