Review: Feist – Metals

1. The Bad in Each Other
2. Graveyard
3. Caught a Long Wind
4. How Come You Never Go There
5. A Commotion
6. The Circle Married the Line
7. Bittersweet Melodies
8. Anti-Pioneer
9. Undiscovered First
10. Cicadas And Gulls
11. Comfort Me
12. Get It Wrong Get It Right

Russia and Feist have more in common than group dance numbers in brightly colored costumes: both are riddles wrapped in mysteries inside enigmas. It’s incidental that the artist became so popular – or perhaps it isn’t, really, because your musician friend probably concedes “1234” makes him or her “feel good,” right? People like that don’t appropriate “feel-good songs” to just anything, because the piece has to have enough depth to it. If you think about Feist’s most popular songs, like “1234” and “Mushaboom,” what are they really saying? Can you pinpoint it immediately or do you have to reach a little?

Yet Feist has never been as surreptitious as Metals, her fourth studio release. I’m going to use “surreptitious” frequently in this article, for it emphasizes stealth and prudence rather than inaccessible secrecy. Prudence is important, because Feist knows if she kept churning out radio-ready pop singles music critics might not label them “feel-good” anymore. Metals comes at a time when she already lived a Bohemian, romantic life in Paris, giving interviews in bathtubs for Let It Die; and it comes after her mainstream commercial success with The Reminder and the precedent she set for only Feist-related artists to be featured on Apple advertisements (frequent collaborator Chilly Gonzales wrote the familiar theme used in the iPad ads). Metals is the sound of zero pretension, total focus, and a complete disregard for any proper pop follow-up she’s supposed to release.

Her marketing campaign was exceedingly surreptitious, as she released short videos that featured excerpts of her new material. Because some were so ominous (especially the piece titled “#1”) many critics thought Feist was going to revolutionize her sound. What some failed to catch was she did, but not in the way they were expecting. Feist wasn’t suddenly going to put a flaming donut on her head (I don’t know, she’s Canadian) and strut around like Arthur Brown. Instead, she retained her essential characteristics as a musician while scrapping all her ephemeral qualities. She recruited Chilly Gonzales as well as other professional partners Mocky and Valgeir Sigurosson, but dispenses with the Blossom Dearie ballads. At the center of Metals is Feist’s frosty alto, the one constant in her work, though she refines it and stretches it to new levels of idiosyncrasy on this album.

Compare Metals to another surreptitious album, Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock: both artists started out as radio staples – Talk Talk with “It’s My Life” in 1986 – but the latter retreated into themselves in 1991, releasing an album that barely peaks past a whisper for forty minutes. Metals is quiet too, and vague – many of the lyrics concern themselves with nature, but obscure nature. “Good morning bird, good nightingale,” Feist haltingly sings on “Caught a Long Wind,” a fever dream of a song that measures Gonzales’ conducting skills with an infinite ambient gulf. There are cicadas, gulls, eclipses, and haiku; these form a mosaic that is removed from most modern pop. Just as this album, actual metals are malleable, diverse, and most importantly, natural. Just as nature, Metals finds the beauty in simplicity where others could not.

So Metals is natural, simple, and surreptitous. There’s the word again, but here it finds perhaps its most important context. If something can be stealthy and simple, would not its simplicity be hidden? If it is not immediately simple, is not the greatest joy recognizing its simplicity? While Laughing Stock is an apt analogue, it was complex by pretending to be simple, whereas Metals is first, last, and always a pure, virgin, and simple album. There are raw pleasures in this record: the riff in “The Bad in Each Other” is sublime, the delight in navigation of “Caught a Long Wind” is unadulterated, the cross-eyed first notes of “Anti-Pioneer” are wonderfully strange, and the padded footsteps in the studio morphing into the beat for “Undiscovered First” is beautfully clever.

The singles for her last three albums are also indicative of Metals’ evolution. “Mushaboom” wryly incorporated a Canadian town into an indie pop number, and “1234” was rather off-kilter for a song with such a memorable melody, but “How Come You Never Go There” [read the review] employed time changes, alliteration, and assonance with surprising venom, and without so much as a chorus for the listener to grab onto. Perhaps Metals is more like Spirit of Eden than Laughing Stock, then, because we are starting to see Feist’s aesthetic shift gradually rather than all at once. Still, many could see this simplicity as mere laziness, and as such it will be as divisive an album as The King of Limbs was for Radiohead. Both albums attempted to purify their limbecks, and I think both succeeded. Metals is a statement, though: where The King of Limbs showed Radiohead didn’t have to reinvent themselves to make a good album, Metals showed Feist at her finest because she reinvented herself. This record is among the best of the year, though it is much too modest to let you know.

Stream: “How Come You Never Go There”

Stream: 90-second previews from Metals