Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Feist Pleasure

Pleasure is Feist’s back-to-basics album. It strips back the belabored arrangements of 2011’s Metals and eschews the pop sensibilities of her 2007 breakout, The Reminder. Instead, the Canadian musician drew inspiration from the years she spent cutting her teeth touring solo with only a guitar and her inimitable voice at her disposal. Pleasure presents a more vulnerable Leslie Feist, and this album of skeletal songs is starker and more sparse than anything we’ve heard from her before. Almost every track on it requires some patience, and while it takes a few listens to unlock Feist’s fifth album, the extra effort proves worth the reward.

The most immediate anchor to latch onto here, as ever, is Feist’s unmistakable voice. It’s always been a wonderful instrument and a focal point in her music, but these bare-bones songs really make the most of it and emphasize its importance and range. Over the past two decades, she’s perfected vocal tics that have become the hallmark of her sound — on hits like “1234” and “My Moon, My Man,” these quirks were part of the inherent appeal — but on Pleasure, there are few dramatic choruses for these vocal acrobatics to hide behind. The minimal arrangements draw your attention to the clever ways that Feist uses her voice to convey emotion and gradually build up a song. Her repertoire is on full display on Pleasure: the intentional scratchiness, the weird pronunciations, the elongated and swallowed syllables. Her singing style is more assured and more adventurous. Its development is most apparent on songs like “I Wish I Didn’t Miss You,” where it’s drowned in reverb and comes out warbled and fragile, reflecting the refrain’s stubborn loneliness, and on “Get Not High, Get Not Low,” where she plays against herself, making a fibrous chorus of swelling mini-Feists.

Even the latter song, which features a characteristically fussy Feist arrangement, feels pared back from her earlier work. This minimalism can be attributed to how the album was recorded. She initially set out to record Pleasure alone but eventually invited long-time collaborators Mocky and Renaud Letang to assist as co-producers, and their fingerprints are purposefully negligible. Together, they recorded the album live three times in three different locations, and the hiss of the rooms where it was recorded was deliberately kept in the final mix, creating an enveloping sense of warmth. This recording technique makes for a more disciplined album. Especially on Metals, Feist’s complex arrangements would often get in the way of the actual song, but there’s no such discord or blockage on Pleasure. The production takes a backseat to Feist’s delicate interpretation of folksy singer-songwriter fare, and the result is both unassuming and impressive.

Pleasure gives you the sense that you’re hearing the album being recorded in real-time — a simplicity that is sure to make for a powerful live performance when Feist tours later this year — but there are certain luxuries that can only be captured in the studio, and the album is at its most playful when the outside world leaks into Feist’s own. She’s always enjoyed popping the insular bubble that recording an album provides — think of the chirping birds on “The Park” or the busy nature tableau of Metals closer “Get It Wrong, Get It Right” — but here her use of environment is often accompanied with a winking sense of humor. Two specific instances stick out: the end of “Any Party,” which closes on the faint hum of a party as the hook of lead single “Pleasure” bleeds out of a passing car, and the conclusion of “A Man Is Not His Song,” which fades into a Mastodon sample that serves as a nod to the music landscape’s overbearing masculinity. Both are discursions that provide some levity, and it demonstrates that the real world has no qualms about encroaching on the protective casing that Feist creates for herself.

Still, the album feels largely unmoored from time and expectation. Feist spent much of the six years between albums soul-searching, wondering if she was ever going to play music again, and it’s telling that she found a creative spark in something as distinctive and personal as her singular voice and presence. Metals felt like a pointed reaction to The Reminder’s popularity; The Reminder was, at least in part, a shoot-for-the-stars attempt at mainstream success. But Pleasure is a long look inward, a no-frills depiction of Feist at her rawest, and her personality and compassion are what come through strongest on these songs. The unadorned nature of the recordings has some basis in the Feist canon — they’re spun from the same web as “Brandy Alexander” and “Intuition” from The Reminder’s back half — but they mostly sound like uncharted territory for Feist. It’s not that these songs are particularly edgy or progressive — the biggest creative “risk” is a spoken word outro from Jarvis Cocker on “Century” — but they do signify Feist’s renewed confidence in her own abilities as a musician, a calculatedly simplistic take that files the appeal of Feist’s music down to its most basic essence.

Even the songs where Feist slips back into her old mode as an anthemic balladeer feel comparatively restrained. Lead singles “Pleasure,” with its slow-build structure and dissonant bluesy riff, and “Century,” with its creeping and circuitous hook suggesting fate will lead us to our soulmate, see Feist tapping into a more familiar and traditional sound, but neither are straightforward enough to reach the ubiquity some of her earlier singles enjoyed. “Any Party,” likely the best song on the album, probably has the best shot at a crossover. It builds to a massive and ecstatic conclusion featuring a rare male backing vocal that echoes Feist’s desire for the comfort a symbiotic relationship can provide: “You’d know I’d leave any party for you/ No party’s as sweet as our party of two.” But Feist has made it clear she has little desire for the sort of success that came after The Reminder, and it’s the songs on which she’s less sure of herself that leave more of a lasting impression and provide a clearer picture of the album as a whole.

In our interview with Feist, she talked about how many of the songs were written as letters to a future self, a document of some clarity she saw in the moment that can easily fade away. On “Get Not High, Get Not Low,” which recounts her time away from the spotlight, she sings about the way she cut herself off from the world: “As long as I stay closed like that/ Secretive to stay intact/ Well, that is not fun/ That’s why I couldn’t trust anyone at all.” Pleasure is an album about becoming an adult, and while isolation may feel easier than interacting with the messy world, it’s rarely the healthiest option. Closing track “Young Up” is a reminder that living requires hard work — “All of this battling goes so slow,” she sings — and serves as a declaration that it’s imperative to push through: “Young up/ You young buck/ The end’s not coming/ Fear not.”

The album is centered around the never-ending search for satisfaction, for pleasure, and Feist reckons that life is what we make of it: “You end up manifesting what you give the most attention to. You make it happen,” she told us. “It’s almost like every person is an alchemist or magician, because we can actually make the things we think [up happen].” So if you’re feeling dissatisfied, stop feeling that way, or do something to change your circumstances. Of course, it’s rarely that easy (and Feist recognizes that), but there will always be something on the horizon that feels just out of reach. An accomplishment will just be replaced by a different goal, so it’s important to have a strong sense of self during life’s perpetual disappointment. For her fifth album, Feist went back to her foundations to find herself and figure out what gives her pleasure in life. For her, it’s the pure artistry and simplicity of her music that gives her joy, and Pleasure is a testament to the fact that self-sufficiency can be more than enough.

Pleasure is out 4/28 via Interscope.

Tags: Feist