The very qualities that make Leslie Feist such a distinctive pop artist are also the very things that make her too easy to dismiss: Her understated melodies, restrained performances and thoughtful arrangements are often decried as dull, monotonous, samey—as if these are critical adjectives that require no further elaboration. Especially at a time when an album’s shelf-life can be measured in days or weeks instead of months or years, Feist makes music that requires close attention and repeated spins, and yet there’s almost always a payoff—some revelation that rewards the listener’s investment.
The Reminder, Feist’s 2009 breakthrough, was—at least relatively—bubbly and spirited, and “1 2 3 4” didn’t need an iPod commercial to sell its showtune effervescence. That was far and away the most immediately catchy in her repertoire, and even with the release of Feist’s third album, Metals, it remains so. The new songs are much more introverted and downbeat—not a conscious step away from The Reminder’s pop pleasures but a logical flip side. The music, however, remains sophisticated and rhythmically feisty (pun thoroughly intended) even when so thoroughly keyed down. Speed it up and you could be listening to tUnE-yArDs’ hyperactive w h o k i l l, which may be its closest cousin in terms of themes and moods and even dynamics.
Feist’s songs are rooted in the repetitions and moods of the blues tradition, an impression that Metals reinforces by its prodigious guitar riffs than run through “Anti-Pioneer” and “Get It Wrong, Get It Right.” Yet the music is so removed from anything resembled “blues” that it simply gives her a blank canvas across which she can splatter somber splashes of rich colors. Soft orchestral swells and fanfares as well as blunt punctuations of percussion lend the album its peculiar dynamic. A tambourine and snare rattle like snakes on “The Undiscovered First,” and the rhythms provide a bed for a dramatic horn line that bleeds fluidly into a synth themes and finally into an accusatory chorus of voices providing a climactic finale.
Above all else, Metals emphasizes Feist’s vocals, which sound as though they were recorded very closely to capture even the finest textures and subtlest tones. At times even Feist herself doesn’t seem to know what she will do from one note to the next. On “Comfort Me,” her voice launches into a short trill of notes, far outside the melodic line, which heralds an abrupt shift in tone and theme. And on “Anti-Pioneer,” she makes a concerted break from intelligible syllables to make her voice another instrument in the mix, delivering pure sound instead of words. It’s a lovely, low-key moment that reveals her most fascinating contradiction: By negating herself in the song—by making the music so quiet, by surrendering the very idea of lyrics, by keeping listeners at arms’ length at least through the first few crucial spins—Feist asserts herself all the more powerfully.