By Brian Riewer | 25 October 2011
Feist once evoked all the distress of a sunflower on a spring day. Her music not only accepted heteronormative standards, but simplified them; courtship was as easy as “1 2 3 4 / Tell me that you love me more,” and “courtship” was still a word used. Probably. Monogamy just seemed so easy, apprehension best left for those preternaturally meant for domestic strife, those who rail against a happy hearth, those who would never stand up and sing, “I got a man to stick it out / And make a home from rented house / And we’ll collect the moments one by one / I guess that’s how the future’s done.”
At least that used to be the case. A sea change took place in Feist’s approach between the release of The Reminder (2007) and this, her fourth album; she’s gouged out most if not all of the saccharine good cheer that defined her work prior to Metals. Though the difference isn’t black and white, and though Feist was never a full-blown Stepford Wife or anything, here she undoubtedly questions the wisdom of traditionalist, Disney-inspired romantic fantasies, realizing that perhaps simply “stick[ing] it out” isn’t the way “the future’s done,” or at least isn’t necessarily the best—or only—way a life should be lived. Indeed, regarding that very “rented house” she mentioned in “Mushaboom,” with “Circle Marries the Line” she seems to be directly rejecting the placation she once described, discarding the notion “but in the meantime I got it hard / second floor living without a yard” in favor of describing something broader, something majestically alone: “I can form a path that leads up to a clearing / Get some distance while the woods come so near and / Then I’ll head out to horizon lines / Get some clarity oceanside.” Justifying the extreme change from domestication to wilderness, she explains, “[It] makes me remember the things that I forgot / It’s as much what it is as what it is not,” suggesting both that she lost who she was while entangled in a serious relationship, and that living in a forest, secluded, would be more desirable than going back.
Metals opens with teeth bared, “The Bad in Each Other” immediately being the biggest and meanest song Feist has ever penned as a solo artist. Like past openers “Gatekeeper” or “So Sorry”—the former only Feist and an acoustic guitar and the latter featuring the same with translucent accents—“The Bad in Each Other” sets the tone for the rest of the album. Thudding bass drums, mournful violins, and Colin Stetson’s saxophone lurk in the background. Leslie Feist sounds genuinely distressed for perhaps the first time in her career, her voice all rubbery and detached as she gives herself the role of metaphorical overused cup in the monogamous relationship, constantly being filled up and emptied out as per someone else’s whims. When she whips out the chorus—“When a good man and a good woman can’t find the good in each other / Then that good man and that good woman bring out the worst in the other”—Feist offers a bit of amnesty, but still maintains that simply being a good person in a relationship with another good person doesn’t amount to a viable future. Things get fucked up; maybe love is the one to blame?
This trepidation colors the way the rest of the album is broached, Feist uneasy with relationships in general, but with her forays specifically. “Caught a Long Wind” takes the prospect of fleeing from a relationship and relates it to the freedom a bird might enjoy, the breath of fresh air gasped at the break between two people the equivalent to the gust of wind allowing a sparrow flight. “Little bird have you got a key? / Unlock the lock inside of me,” she sighs, pushing herself towards the open with the help of devastating piano work and the morose clapping percussion that closes the song. This sentiment, of nature’s wheelings as the antithesis of romance, propels “A Commotion” as well, lovers’ clashes “block[ing] out the sun” and “turn[ing] heaven into hell”; a piano piece taken from Spoon’s haunting “The Ghost of You Still Lingers” gives the number its proper gravity. Some sarcasm directed at upper-middle class suburban life even peeks in; mingled with kazoo-ing guitar licks—much like what similarly jaded Annie Clark often uses—Feist describes the apocalyptic event sanitarily, calling it simply a “commotion.”
“Undiscovered First” is “A Commotion” but more, the shutters thrown open so the entire world can hear the turmoil within. “You can’t unthink a thought / Either it’s there or not,” she posits pensively, the kernel of this rebellion exploding, the song ending with grinding guitars and ground-shaking drum work, her shouting over the din, “Is this the right mountain for us to climb? / Is this the right river for us to ford? / Is this the way to live? / Is it wrong to want more?”
Feist is still the same glowing person behind this music video, so she does let the light in for a few of tracks, admitting not all is fire and brimstone at home, that her old, optimistic, somewhat traditional self is still inside her—in some fashion. Yet that light’s been tainted, the damage done to the trust she formerly had and the ease with which she transcended the inherent difficulties in relationships—in all her relationships. In fact, the most jaunty songs on Metals are “How Come You Never Go There” and “Graveyard”; the former contains the line, “We waste energy on protections / We’re living proof we’ve got to let go,” and the latter is about raising the dead from the grave. “Woe Be” is a pleasant piano ballad which tinkers about sweetly, but Feist deflatedly confesses within, “Woe be to the man who loves a songwriter / She’s always searching for a song in everything that you’ve done wrong.” You get the idea.
So despite being in a far more melancholy state compared to her outlook on past albums The Reminder and Let It Die (2004), Leslie Feist has managed to produce an even more intriguing character, one with depth and doubt and apprehension and dread and all the other things that make up the other, harder, larger half of the human experience. At least compared to the half sticking it out with a good man. It’s a welcome growth for an already well-rounded artist. And in 2011, Feist is ever rounder because of it.