On Pleasure, Feist Plays to Introverts Looking to Pop Open

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Leslie Feist. Photo: Mike Pont/FilmMagic

In Leslie Feist’s musical universe, there are only two states of matter. No liquid can exist there: Vaporous and dense, the Canadian indie singer’s lyrics never flow without also hovering and dispersing. The most uncanny aspect of the Feist experience is witnessing the meaning of words dissipate into the richness of the voice that articulates them. The artist herself seems aware of this effect, if perhaps only fitfully and subconsciously. In her own words, she’s prone to leaving her listeners “stranded in a fog of words.” Feist’s core fans tend to be thoughtful depressives, so it’s fitting that an artist focused on private relations would hide out of sight. Even her more outgoing lyrics come off as fantasies of an author well-versed in solitude and retrospection. Her albums — the latest of which, Pleasure, dropped on Friday — often sound the way well-executed articles with “introvert” in the title read.

The “fog of words” quote comes from “I Feel It All,” the second track on her breakthrough third album The Reminder (2007). It’s one of her best tracks overall, not least because it shows off how best to steer a listener through all that mist. The key was to emphasize physicality, whether it’s the crunch of an acoustic guitar at the center or (in this specific case) piano, tambourines, and glockenspiel; finger snaps and hand claps are in evidence elsewhere. Feist’s voice is as much a natural presence as any of the waters, winds, or mountains that feature in her lyrics: It can’t be changed, but it can be framed and harnessed through solid engineering. It’s no accident that she titled The Reminder’s 2012 successor Metals — after all, only the hardest materials can balance out her intrinsically cloudy tendencies.

When Feist’s gift for lyrical concentration is at its highest point, as it was on The Reminder’s other best track “Intuition,” her words could hold one rapt virtually on their own, with only minimal guitar flourishes as accompaniment. Sharp, simple, striking rhymes; short lines that left space for regret and sense alike to settle in; pared-down diction; a direct and candid tone applied to an intimate subject, typically the prospect of romantic loss — when these elements converged with that voice, as they often did on The Reminder, the resulting compound was durable and fresh.

One of the things that The Reminder called to mind was the overlap between Feist’s poetic strengths and the skill set required of pop songwriters. Fueled by the huge hit “1234,” the song turned iPod commercial jingle that somehow managed the impossible task of being both completely twee and objectively good, the album was the greatest commercial success of Feist’s career to date. Strong sales were matched by critical praise: Like her fellow Polaris Prize perennial Drake’s Take Care, The Reminder is a very good album whose greatness would be beyond dispute had it shed about a quarter of its length.

The Reminder is not openly an album about fame in the way that Take Care is, but the pop-oriented or at least pop-compatible LP did make its artist suddenly famous: The songs became a mainstay on the coffee shop and campus circuit. Having spent her youth and early adulthood on the margins of music, Feist at 31 had discovered that her indie aesthetic fit in at the center all too well. The affinity with Apple was more than incidental — an aura of clean, precise originality was common to both corporation and artist.

The realization of her compatibility with pop has hardly been a welcome one for Feist herself. Once it became clear that the flirtation that had commenced in 2004 with the Sade knockoffs “One Evening” and “Leisure Suite” and the Bee Gees’s cover “Inside and Out” (all three are very good) on Let It Die had become a potentially serious relationship, Feist promptly shied away. A defensive attitude is evident in the five-year gap between The Reminder and Metals as well as in the album itself. As reviewers noted, Metals eschews the pop ambitions and aesthetics of its predecessor in favor of longer, more distant, more abstract lyrics and slightly more complex arrangements. The problem — assuming you cared to see it this way — was that her lyrics became less direct and more abstract. Now that the language wasn’t as accessible and there was more of it to process, the intimations that had made The Reminder not just commercially successful but aesthetically memorable vanished in the thick haze naturally emitted by her voice. The album sounds fantastic and polished, but comprehension of the English language is not a requirement for enjoying it to its fullest; it may even, at times, be an impediment.

Now, after yet another half-decade hiatus, Feist has returned with Pleasure, her fifth album. If the lyrical model for Metals was prefigured in the abstractions of The Reminder’s “The Water,” “Intuition” seems to be the sonic model for the sparse settings on Pleasure. That track’s deep focus on a relationship has given way to a more singular relation: This is an album made by a woman coming to terms with herself. Ghosts of failed relationships linger (“I Wish I Didn’t Miss You,” “A Man Is Not His Song”), but the core concern is the singer’s own character as she reviews the shyness that she wasn’t quite able to overcome, and the fear and mistrust at its root: “As long as I stay closed like that / Secretive to stay intact / Well, that is not fun / That is why I couldn’t trust anyone at all,” she sings on “Get Not High, Get Not Low.”

The lyrics on Pleasure are more immediate than on Metals, a sign that, with whatever artful hesitation, Feist is willing to entertain a less hermetic sound. The lo-fi indie legends Guided By Voices are cited in the lyrics on “Any Party,” but echoes of more mainstream artists recur as well, especially on the tracks which circulate quietly and slowly before arriving at and ending on a much-repeated hook and crescendo. The promise of mutual “Pleasure” wouldn’t be out of place on a vintage Kylie Minogue track; the chant of “More than a melody’s needed” that closes out “A Man Is Not His Song” feels almost like an Atlanta trap mantra, and the hope for a special someone on “Century” expresses the same sentiment as the hook on the Weeknd’s “Angel” in similar language, and with a similar level of repetition. (The influence of PJ Harvey, meanwhile, is pervasive.) In a pop-like, but also punkish way, repetition seems to have supplanted rhyme as Feist’s primary method of structuring words.

Pleasure can’t match The Reminder for highlights, but it is more consistent than that album or Let It Die and it’s less removed than Metals. It’s interesting and fruitful new ground to occupy for an artist now solidly in middle age. After swinging too close to pop and then too far away, Feist has restored herself to a fuller range of motion: Pleasure is a reminder that the indie/pop binary has always been more trouble than it’s worth. Aversion to mass appeal can be every bit as conformist as catering to the charts, and the presence of a large audience is no predictor of subordination to its tastes. Real independence consists of developing a sound of one’s own to share generously, without manipulation or prior commitment. In Feist’s words that means, as she repeats at the end of “Get Not High, Get Not Low, that “I can’t tell or be told where to go.” If only everyone could be so fortunate.

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On Pleasure, Feist Plays to Introverts Looking to Pop Open