I don’t recall any ad making a song famous as quickly as that iPod commercial did “1234.” It only took 30 seconds for Leslie Feist’s old teenage hopes to resonate with everyone who saw her dancing in that tiny 2-inch screen. Since she broke through with 2007’s still-stunning The Reminder, she’s kept a relatively low profile, performing intermittently and collaborating with artists like Wilco and Grizzly Bear (and don’t forget the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo on Broken Social Scene’s last record). She has also presumably been contemplating how to follow up what may end up being her magnum opus. That it took so long to come to fruition is something of a relief; there’s nothing overly ambitious about Metals, nor is there any visible desire to cash in or grow her audience. It’s just another thoughtful, satisfying take on folksy pop (or poppy folk).
So how do you follow up such an unexpectedly successful record? If you’re Feist, you take a step back. Metals is a largely unplugged affair, the spaces that open up amongst the music are teeming with warmth. There’s a moment on “The Circle That Married The Line” where Feist concedes: “It’s as much what it is as what it is not,” which holds true for the entire album. The sparse, earthy tones stand on very different terrain than The Reminder’s smooth balladry. It’s too easy to point out the differences; they’re obvious upon a cursory listen. The thrills are understated, but what’s so wonderful is how they strike a lot of the same chords as her past work yet still manage to sound distinct.
The constant is her voice; watery, elegant, alternatingly frail and powerful, magnetic, and immediately distinctive. She offers up some of her most beautiful performances yet. When the lonely melodic ruminations of “Get It Wrong, Get It Right” fully sink in at the chorus, they pack twice the emotional wallop. Then there’s the nostalgic “Bittersweet Melodies,” a gently emotive lullaby with soft-focus imagery: “Whispers in the grass / Under slow dancing trees / Birds are telling me stories / Saying you were meant for me.”
If her music has grown a little more precious in places, there’s also a distinct shift in how Feist is choosing to rock out. Album opener “The Bad in Each Other” is a peppy folk rock tune with a Fleetwood Mac-ian riff, woodcut drums and a brass section that slows, swells and builds into something colossal. Eerie, skittering strings and chanting male voices set the scene for a fight between two undisclosed parties on “A Commotion.” The more rollicking tunes are less free-flowing and carry more of an edge to them, but Feist’s personality and charm are smudged all over the place.
The emotional breadth of Metals may be its most impressive characteristic. Conveying feelings that are so varied, but still manage to ring true every time is something few of her contemporaries can accomplish. From the euphoric, resuscitative chants of “Graveyard,” to the melodic sighs of “How Come You Never Go There,” every song channels something different. Some do it better than others, but they all do it well. There are no real weak spots, just slow spots, and lots of high points that will have you skipping back to listen again. After the watershed year that was 2007, we couldn’t have asked for much more from this release. More importantly, we should be enormously grateful that Feist took her time. It’s a lovely, weightless set of songs from an artist whom we can now reasonably assume is capable of producing consistently great music.
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