Indie success stories have been a dime a dozen for quite a few years now, but few artists have hit the level of crossover success that Leslie Feist did with 2007’s fantastic The Reminder. Rather than striking while the iron was hot, Feist has let more than four years go by since her breakthrough. Having claimed to have temporarily lost interest in making music, it was a respectable decision. It would have been relatively easy for her to sleepwalk through the writing and recording of a follow up, sticking to the approach of her past success. It would probably be a more commercially successful approach as well, but certainly not artistically satisfying. Luckily, that’s not the method Feist took. Little if anything on her latest album Metals even has a whiff of crossover appeal. Determined to follow her own ambitions, Feist has taken on an expansive new direction.
The album’s first single “The Circle Married the Line” spells out Feist’s intentions pretty clearly; she’s not gunning to be on the pop charts again any time soon. It’s a gorgeous song, but it’s a far cry from “1 2 3 4” in terms of commercial potential. Declaring that “First light was/ Last light was/ Alright when the circle married the line” isn’t quite as easily relatable as “1 2 3 4/ Tell me that you love me more.” Granted, much of The Reminder is deeper than those lines would suggest, but the shift in subject matter is apparent. And when she is tackling something a little less inscrutable on Metals, the results can be less than sanguine. On the opener “The Bad in Each Other,” she expresses the possibility that “a good man, and a good woman/ Will bring out the worst in the other.” This unfortunate, but all too recognizable situation is enhanced through the use of sweeping strings and R&B horns, which are the perfect complement to her unique prose.
Through freeing herself from the obligation to deliver another hit, Feist has allowed herself to go to some interesting places, putting her dynamic range on full display. In “Caught a Long Wind,” she manages to move all over the place effortlessly. Starting with a delicate finger-picked guitar she drops in a stomping piano, crashing cymbals, vibes and eventually grand, overlapping string melodies, only to bring things back down to a hush at the end. Rather than merely wallowing in pretentiousness, Feist fits all of these pieces together in a very natural, interesting way. What’s most impressive about Metals is how tracks like “Anti-Pioneer” or “The Undiscovered First” feel so intimate and yet, can take a cinematic turn, suddenly becoming larger than life. The latter starts off as a gentle Iron and Wine-esque acoustic waltz, but blooms into an incredibly powerful anthem by the song’s end.
Feist proves her versatility at various points on Metals, taking on a bluesy swagger, a soft croon or a melodic chant. The vocal layering is particularly impressive and worth noting; the chanting voices on “A Commotion” are as startling as the harmonies on “Cicadas and Gulls” are aching. Fans may miss the pop appeal of The Reminder, but Metals is far from a disappointment. It’s a strong artistic statement, regardless of whether or not it received with quite the same enthusiasm. So if the record gives the impression that Feist is unconcerned with the trajectory of her career, it certainly doesn’t mean she’s apathetic towards the music itself.