Album Review: Feist – Multitudes

[Fiction; 2023]

Six years after her grandiose, moody career high-watermark Pleasure, Canadian singer-songwriter Leslie Feist is changing gears a bit. Multitudes, written in the wake of the birth of her adopted daughter and the loss of her father, is potentially her most nakedly personal yet. Feist’s lyrics often tend to be puzzles, never betraying too much while conjuring up striking images and stirring vivid truths out of the air and earth. But here, Feist’s words — while still mostly a typical blend of peculiar imagery, odd turns of phrase, and unpredictable melodies— hew closer to a still life than an abstract landscape. This isn’t her Blue or A Crow Looked at Me, but it’s about as close as we’ve gotten up to now.

It’s also her most accessible and laid-back album in some time. At almost any point, the album threatens to mosey away into the forest, its pleasant face and honeyed melodies hiding surprisingly complex songs. After an epic and unpredictable run of records, Multitudes is jarringly straightforward. (Or at least it seems that way.) The album is covered with mostly-unaffected acoustic guitars, augmented by simple keys and percussion. The biggest (and most successful) swing Feist takes here is to buoy several moments of the album with whole choruses of her own voice, creating intricate layers of harmonies. Often, too, the voices are edited or processed to sound off, abstract, or brittle. On Multitudes, Feist is using her voice as an instrument more so than on any of her other albums.

The first three tracks are nearly perfect, and they set a very high bar for the project that it never quite hits again. “In Lightning” is one of her best songs yet. A bit of an anomaly on the record, it’s all clamorous, muscular, ramshackle energy. Big, brittle drums thunder in alongside a glaringly forthright chorus of Feists, shouting out an alarming wordless melody. During the verses, we get a more solemn tone, with Feist’s lovely, feathery voice up close in the mix atop warm hums. Eventually, a coruscating bridge scorches forward. The following track is the much softer but sneakily catchy “Forever Before”, which is a beautiful paean to the birth of her adopted child. It showcases the immediate love she felt, but also the worries that she isn’t prepared. Lyrics like “All the time in the world / Can’t begin to prepare / For forever before / She’s sleeping right over there” are simple and relatable, but powerfully plainspoken. 

“Love Who We Are Meant To” is one of her most lovesick songs, with a gorgeous melody and a deft fingerpicked progression. Towards the end, some melodramatic Douglas Sirk strings waft in like a twilit breeze, bolstering a rather sparse song with gentle gravitas. In this song, we also get one of her finest verses in recent memory:

Drafting as I drift
I cannot write nor reckon it
So will I let it wreck me
Or wreck my dream of family?
Even denial is romantic
And that’s romance’s disadvantage
That sometimes we don’t get to
Love who we are meant to

This potent word play and sense of internal rhymes — which really comes alive when sung vs. being read — is indicative of one of the things that has always made Feist such a strong voice in her genre. She writes about things we can mostly all understand — unrequited love, parenthood, loss, emotional turmoil, longing for peace — but does so in a way that comes alive when performed. 

It’s part of what makes this album such a tricky gambit: Multitudes is her most homogenous record sonically and instrumentally, rarely leaving its comfort zone; but it contains some of her sharpest and most poignant observations, most deceptively simple playing, and indelible melodies. And despite the slightly rough-around-the-edges recording process she so prefers (complete with a handful of admittedly somewhat distracting instrumental mistakes), the album is full and clear; it’s crisp, upfront, like she’s playing right in front of your face. It’s this tension between the slight monotonousness of its sound palette and the emotional wealth underneath it that keeps Multitudes caught in a bit of a limbo.

After “Love Who We Are Meant To”, that tension becomes rather clear, even though there are numerous highlights along the way. “Hiding Out in the Open” is the first track to really show off that aforementioned vocal layering technique, which is truly one of the album’s niftiest tricks. Perhaps the inspiration was taken from (or led to) the album title, but Feist’s technique of layering her own voice — often in curious, unpredictable harmonies — is a crafty one. We hear it right away on “In Lighting”, but on “Hiding Out in the Open”, we are treated to what feels like a campfire round with Feist playing all the parts. “Everybody’s got their shit,” they all sing, asking, “Who’s got the gut to sit with it?” The voices coalesce in the end to form what’s perhaps too pat an ending, but it’s an effective use of this compositional tool.

Elsewhere, we get songs like “The Redwing”, which are almost so simple and small in their scope it’s both endearing and possibly a bit frustrating. The song is certainly pretty, in an Iron & Wine, spring morning way, but comes off a bit too airy and weightless (perhaps like the eponymous bird). “Become the Earth” threatens to go that route too, until the eerie strings start bubbling underneath, and before long, a repetitious, cyclical bridge takes over the whole song, ending in a decidedly different place. The bridge is made up of many Feist voices, some bitcrushed or edited to sound like a skipping CD, as woodwinds and bass and whatever-else slowly bloom beneath. It’s a wonderfully climactic vision, at turns discordant and entrancing. “I Took All Of My Rings Off” is another example of a song that starts off a little too mellow or even a little pedestrian, before truly blossoming into something surprising and moving.

But some moments can’t help but feel a little too patient for their own good. “Of Womankind” has some gorgeous strings and worthwhile underlying themes, but the song drifts a bit aimlessly across its four minutes. “Martyr Moves” similarly just sort of bobs along, with its chirpy guitar-and-synth melody and low cellos not quite enough to make it hit too hard. But even here we are greeted with some deeply potent songwriting, like when Feist asks, “Will the loneliness crush me more alone or with him?” It’s just too bad songs like these don’t quite have the musical heft to really drive them home and support the weight of their words more effectively.

Multitudes drifts past across its 47 minutes amiably, never doing anything offensive or really unpleasant. In fact, it’s arguably Feist’s most purely enjoyable record in a long time. Just look at late-album rocker “Borrow Trouble”, with its charging New Pornographers strings and percussion. The song is her brightest and catchiest pop rock song since “I Feel it All” back in 2007, and is sure to be a hit in a live setting. But by the time it arrives, it’s a bit of a sore thumb, nestled as it is amongst the more creaky, placid songs – but it’s a welcome jolt.

All in all, though, Feist has rarely sounded better and more natural than she does here. The tension and contrasts noted above are not enough to derail the album or make it feel like a footnote in her discography. Far from it — Multitudes is a lovely listen from front to back, and her most sonically and thematically consistent album ever. However, it may be a little too deceptively simple for its own good. The fact that so many of the treasures of this record come in the smaller details and choices is fine, but it does mean the album takes more time to sink in as a result. Feist is a master orchestrator, deriving beauty and magic from organizing chaos into breezy folk pop gems, with key moments of magic where she lets the light bend askew. It’s just that, sometimes, if you have to stare too long and too closely at the forest to really see the trees, you might just end up turning around.