Music Reviews

Feist Metals

(Polydor) Rating - 10/10

In this crazy mixed up world it's important to have something to believe in; some sort of essential truth that, no matter how bad things get, you can always rely on.

Personally, I choose to believe that it's impossible to dislike Canadian songstress Leslie Feist. Which is admittedly a weirdly specific belief to have, and a difficult one to hang onto when the internet offers easy access to irrational amounts of hatred on practically anything you can think of (I expect that I'm also unintentionally soliciting evidence to counter my theory in the comments box below). That's not to say that she's some untouchable genius with a Midas touch – Let It Die, for example, was a handful of good tracks and a lot of filler – but rather that her managing to graduate from blogosphere-endorsements (largely because of her association with the likes of Peaches, Gonzales and Broken Social Scene) to mainstream acceptance while negotiating the usual backlash was an incredible achievement. Even the Apple-induced ubiquity of the 1234 video was just about overcome with a healthy dose of self-deprecating humour, and, of course, a guest appearance on Sesame Street.

Although, this success seems to have caused several crises of confidence. The publications that championed The Reminder in the first place have now tried to rewrite the narrative by casting the album as a 'guilty pleasure'; a contentious notion at the best of times, and a bit of a ludicrous one here. Yes, the album's sales were boosted by the involvement of the world's biggest technology company, but that didn't stop it being a genuinely good record with a wide-ranging appeal. Equally perplexed by the situation was Feist herself, who reacted to the threat of stardom by practically dropping off the map. The resulting four year wait for a follow-up (as well as the early word that her new material was very dark indeed) suggested that it was going to be that classic disappointment: the 'turns out fame isn't all that it's cracked up to be' album. So it's impressive that Metals is nothing of the sort.

But, while it's a given that she'll have her work cut out to reclaim critical approval, in the years that she's been away the popular market has also changed considerably. Female singer-songwriters may be more popular than ever, but arguably gender is the only thing Feist really has in common with this new wave of ridiculously young chanteuses. Out of the many differences that separates the two perhaps the most immediately striking is that, comparatively speaking, Feist's voice isn't that strong, and frankly, thank god for that: the last thing we need now is another girl who thinks that having a brassy voice and a bad boyfriend is all you need to make a pop record. Rather than attempting to bombast you into feeling something, Metals instead serves as a reminder of how important silence and sparseness can be.

It would be true to say that a fair amount of the album draws on the same blueprint as The Reminder: The Circle Married the Line is a bit of Brandy Alexander-style late night smoothness; How Come You Never Go There, like Limit To Your Love, conceals its lonely core in a pleasant melody (although Comfort Me takes the same sentiment and presents it with all its harshness fully on show); and Graveyard contains something of the joyful naïveté of 1234, albeit with the rousing sing-a-long lyrics now being about corpses rather than counting. Crucially though, Feist knows that she needs to push herself too, expanding her range of influences from the light jazz and soul of her earlier work (although the electronica touches aren't really to be found here – as the title suggests, Metals sounds like its been roughly hewn from the elements), to also include country; blues, particularly in the surprisingly brutal stomping rhythms; and, most effectively, gospel, thanks to some soaring vocal arrangements. In places she also tries out some relatively strange ideas, like in the appropriately named A Commotion, where everything (including, eventually, her vocal) sounds like it's trying to soundtrack the shower scene from Psycho while a gang of men yell in the background, yet these moments prove to be worth the effort, and besides, the hooks are still never far away.

It may be the case that the most important quality that sets Feist apart from her young rivals is a savviness that borders on the ruthless. It's something that she's displayed in the past with her choice of collaborators – ditching Peaches when her brand of gynocentric electro-clash started to get a bit tired and hooking up with Gonzales when he dropped his comedy rapper persona and went back to cabaret, and now she's recruited saxophonist (not to mention clarinetist, flautist, trumpeter and horn player) Colin Stetson just when his solo career's started to take off – but here it applies to the track listing too. Every song feels like it's been painstakingly selected and sequenced for maximum effect, with any potential deadweight discarded. For example, Cicadas and Gulls initially seems a little too lightweight to stand on its own, and its selection over Woe Be (which was was singled out as a potential highlight in previews, but has now been relegated to 'bonus track' status) quite baffling, but it makes perfect sense when placed between the dramatic Undiscovered First and Comfort Me, serving as a much needed palate cleanser.

More importantly this ruthlessness extends to the song-writing. There's a wealth of musical brilliance on the album, but it's mostly kept under wraps until absolutely necessary. The result being that, just when you think you've got Feist's game figured out and you know exactly where a track's going to end up, something - a vertiginous swoop of strings maybe, or the delicate chime of Gonzales' piano, or, in the case of Undiscovered First, merely a late burst of energy – drops in to change its direction. And the lyrics are equally economical. The promised darkness is there, perhaps making Metals the autumnal counterpart to The Reminder's summery sound, wisely, however, rather than go on and on about such feelings, she instead tries to capture them in cut-up form (not quite the “True life in haiku” she describes it as in Comfort Me, but close enough), rendering what could have been tedious whining into spot-on emotional snapshots. On the sultry Undiscovered First she even manages to get away with the concluding line “Is it wrong to want more?”, despite having had already benefited from a lucrative marketing deal, awards recognition, and plenty of record sales.

There are many reasons to love Metals: it manages be compellingly dark, while still having an inviting warmth to it; it sees Feist quietly pushing her sound forward, trying out new ideas and pulling them off; it's been crafted with a level of care and precision that few artists can achieve; and it reclaims the idea of sophisticated adult pop from the ever-growing army of melodramatic ingénues. Ultimately, what it all boils down to is that, as much as an album can be, it's pretty damn close to being flawless; not only matching the quality of The Reminder but actually bettering it. Perhaps we should start thinking about imposing a mandatory four year hiatus between records on every burgeoning pop-star?