In 2007, Feist released “The Reminder,” an album that included a chipper single, “1234.” That pop track became her biggest hit, appearing in a commercial for Apple’s iPod and, almost inevitably, on an episode of “Sesame Street,” in which Feist sang new lyrics for children learning to count. Her exuberant, “Fame”-like video for “1234” suggested potential for a career in mass entertainment.
But Leslie Feist moved in a different direction with “Metals,” her following album issued four years later. Setting aside any allusions to pop or grabs at celebrity, she placed her glorious voice above direct, almost blunt arrangements built on percussion and a ringing electric guitar. “Metals” presented the singer-songwriter in search of solace and her station in the world at large, as if something hadn’t been quite settled in her mind.
For listeners who knew well the breadth of Ms. Feist's work, which incorporates jazz, bossa nova, country and folk, “1234” was a one-off, so the richness of “Metals” wasn’t the surprise. But they may have been unaware just how convinced she was that she had to put the pop life behind her in order to make the kind of music she wanted to. She told me that the kind of stardom "1234" brought proved "a smooth, ungraspable surface.”
"Playing in arenas, I thought, 'OK, I should log this in my memory,'” she said. “But I was worn down to a fine point. Ultimately I wasn't making music. It was repetition."
She stepped back and waited two years before beginning the process that resulted in "Metals." Though the Nova Scotia native used many of the same Canadian musicians who appeared on "The Reminder,” including Jason Charles Beck – who performs and produces as Chilly Gonzales – and Dominic "Mocky" Salole, "Metals" was designed to be different from the ground up. Her mission: to retain the melodic and rhythmic attributes of “The Reminder,” but to add environment to the mid-range.
“I wanted the space filled up. I don't really have a name for it – air, pressure, sonic wind – but I wanted something around us." She locked into what she was looking for when she and the musicians convened in a converted barn in Big Sur, California. As a lyricist, Feist found inspiration too in the natural environment of central California. In songs like "Caught a Long Wind" and "Cicadas and Gulls," Feist used nature as metaphor; often, the narrator has a bird's perspective – above setting, wind-tossed, observing beauty at a distance.
Though the guitars rang, drums popped, brass blared and strings soared, the tenor of “Metals” is often melancholy. Heartbreak is a central theme. In the opening number, “The Bad in Each Other,” she sang: “Held me like a cup/Fill me up then pour me out/…We had the same feelings at opposite times.” “Our love is not the light it was” is how she put it in “How Come You Never Go There,” adding, “We’re living proof we gotta let go/And stop looking through the halo.” In “The Circle Married the Line,” a gentle folk tune with the bittersweet chimes of a xylophone and plucked violins, she sang: “I know it’ll need to go from good to worse/Living in the past begins the ending first…/Keep on the path that leads up to the clearing.”
Feist reaffirmed her commitment to her new direction while touring behind “Metals.” For most shows, she performed her new songs and reinvented her earlier ones with three-piece band and the vocal trio Mountain Man. For other concerts – including an superior set at the 2012 Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival – she added brass, baritone saxophone and a string section, thus fortifying the mid-range and adding great warmth. As she sang, she could be surprisingly forceful, spitting bitter lines before easing back to croon more tender phrases. (For an example, check out her October 2011 performances on “Later… With Jools Holland” that are up on YouTube.) She dropped “1234” from her set list.
Feist has yet to release a follow-up to “Metals,” but the album served its purpose. It presented Leslie Feist as an artist who would wave off pop stardom in favor of the pursuit of making music as she preferred – and tapping into deeply personal emotions to do so. An often-beautiful, occasionally jarring album, “Metals” stands as a testimony to what can happen when a gifted artist is committed foremost to her own vision.