It may seem unforgivably hackneyed to suggest that the air on Leslie Feist’s new album is thick with tension but it certainly sounds thick with something. Like a new LP that somehow comes pre-equipped with scratches and crackle, Pleasure is likely to cause audiophiles to fret over their high-end Scandinavian equipment due to the cloud of hiss that often surrounds the deliberately unvarnished performances here.
Thankfully, its origins are authentic rather than contrived or accidental. It’s the product both of the natural reverb in the studio where the majority of the new songs were first recorded – a converted church in Woodstock, N.Y. – and of Feist’s preference for singing and playing unencumbered by the headphones and vocal booths she finds too sterile and isolating. That hiss is the sound of air that’s been pressurized by all the notes, noises and feelings that Feist and Dominic Salole – the regular collaborator and fellow Canadian expat otherwise known as Mocky — project and amplify into the rafters before it all comes bearing down on the performers again.
The result is music that has an acute sense of physicality — of words pushed up and out from diaphragms, of fingertips moving roughly on and across strings, of what she calls “straight-up human bodies” in a space with some much-cherished gear. It suits songs that are the starkest and simplest Feist has created since the Canadian’s Apple-assisted rise to prominence over a decade ago. Arriving six years since her last batch of new material, Pleasure marks a dramatic shift away from the grander-scaled arrangements on much of 2011’s Metals and the finesse that made 2007’s The Remainder so exquisite. Instead, the rougher, rawer songs here demonstrate her desire to create music that she can support with her own “musculature,” to use another word she’s used lately. No heavy lifting required – this was clearly more a matter of her and Mocky in a room together, deciding (as she recently quipped) “how to hit what and how hard”.
The fact that this is all the work of so few hands is another surprising development for an artist who’s benefited so much from her excellent taste in collaborators, beginning with friends like Peaches and Chilly Gonzales (with whom she and Mocky played in a short-lived Toronto outfit called The Shit before they all decamped for Berlin and Paris) and more prominently with the Canadian indie-rock caravan known as Broken Social Scene (who, like Feist, are now back in action after several years of inactivity). A key contributor to Metals, The Reminder and Feist’s 2004 breakthrough Let It Die, Gonzales contributes only a few piano parts here, though the core of her team remains Mocky and French producer Renaud Letang. Arcade Fire and Bon Iver horn man assists on “The Wind” and “Lucky” Paul Taylor, the drummer in Feist’s live band, provides additional percussion. Jarvis Cocker supplies the deliciously arch oration at the climax of “Century”.
Due to its slim guest list and generally somber disposition, Pleasure can sometimes come across as an album for “one of those endless dark nights of the soul”, as Cocker puts it wryly during his brief cameo. As such, it could be taken for the kind of work favoured by confessional-minded singer-songwriters for time immemorial. An eerie and wrenching portrait of heartbreak, “I Wish I Didn’t Miss You” certainly fits into that mould due to Feist’s gentle, almost hesitant strumming and lyrics about missing an ex so much, she thought he must be dead “because how could I live if you’re still alive?” “Lost Dreams” is just as haunting (or haunted), evoking how it feels to suddenly come to the edge of one of life’s precipices. Similarly delicate is “The Wind”, a song rich with images that call to mind the weathered landscape of rural Ontario, where Feist retreated after getting worn out by touring Metals. She finds herself amid trees that “lean north like calligraphy/ and I’m shaped by my storming/ like they’re shaped by their storming”.
Here and elsewhere on Pleasure, Feist’s lyrics express new feelings of uncertainty toward aspects of life that had formerly seemed fundamental. In the case of “A Man Is Not His Song”, what she questions is her own confidence in music and its ability to sustain her. As much as she treasures the “old melodies”, she articulates the danger in regarding the songs not as expressions of herself but the self itself. “Eventually it’ll let you down,” she suggests, “by believing in standing ovation”. In moments like this, she tackles a crux that’s been faced by many artists, a mid-career crisis that may be phrased less poetically as “if I’m not my work, then who the hell am I?” Success doesn’t solve the problem either, judging by the confusion and exhaustion she conveys in “Get Not High Get Not Low” (“I was living in extremes and everything that that means”). The process of healing is a laborious one — as she puts it in “Baby Be Simple”, a gorgeously hazy effort on which Feist’s voice fosters a shiver-inducing degree of intimacy, “I had to climb down into today/ and give up the pain I held myself up by”. And while new loves may have offered a safe harbour in her sweetest ballads on Let It Die and The Reminder, here they offer little refuge. In “Century”, the affairs and relationships of a lifetime become a ceaseless progression, a relentless cycle in which “someone who will lead you to someone who will lead you to someone who will lead you to the one at the end of the century”.
But as painful as some of this self-searching can be, there’s hardly a moment on Pleasure that feels morose, defeated or downbeat. That’s partially a testament to the fact that Feist’s musical touchstones have always been more strident figures like Nina Simone or French icon Brigitte Fontaine rather than any weepy, wispy types who tend to get blown around by these storms. (The blend of suppleness and steeliness of Joni Mitchell circa The Hissing Of Summer Lawns is certainly discernible here, too.) She’s also too eager to ground herself back in that straight-up human body. That’s the point of “Pleasure”, which – as much as it echoes lusty old PJ Harvey songs about legs on fire that must be licked — seems less about fulfilling carnal desires than celebrating anything that bridges the chasm between mind and flesh, however temporary it may be. “That’s what we’re here for!” she cries as guitars and drums get hit harder and harder.
To accept Pleasure at face value as an unadorned, unaffected work of an artist intent on baring her soul may also mean overlooking the songs’ humour and exuberance, as well as the cheeky theatricality that subverts the aura of authenticity conjured by all that hiss. Cocker’s cameo on “Century” and the blast of thrash metal at the end of “A Man Is Not His Song” count as two injections of mischief into the otherwise pensive proceedings. Enhancements like the distortion effect which causes her voice and guitar to quaver on “I Wish I Didn’t Miss You” suggest that Pleasure may contain just as much fine detail as The Remainder and Metals did even if it’s often obscured by a level of sonic sediment.
Yet more surprising is “Any Party”, which opens with a sly namecheck of Guided By Voices, blossoms into a romantic vignette tinged with nostalgia — the detail about trying to reach her beau on his “new flip phone” gives the game away — and closes like a radio play as she leaves the party and walks out into the night. (You can also hear a dog barking, a train in the distance and a car blasting “Pleasure” out its windows as it drives past.) With its campfire-singalong finale, “Any Party” boasts the ramshackle charm of Broken Social Scene’s shaggiest ballads — it’ll be a fine thing if Feist’s collaboration with the band on their new album is even half as endearing.
Feist’s self-deprecating wit further prevents this affair from becoming any kind of pity party. Pleasure’s graceful closer, “Young Up” captures one last moment of doubt as she wonders what her music still means to her and “if I’d corrupted the core by asking for more”. But she offers this sobriquet to fans who wondered why they had to wait six years in between Feist albums: “just so you know/ all of this battling goes so slow”. A certain release of tension is also palpable in her vocal performance and the equally soft touch on the organ’s keys and the snare drum. An uncommonly wise meditation on doubt and pain that yields some of Feist’s most affecting and exhilarating music to date, Pleasure ends with the assurance that “everything that needs to fall has fallen”. That means the only way to go now is up.
the Bee Gees’ “Inside Out” provides stiff competition.
After touring in support of Metals for three years, did you feel the need to take a step back from music and reassess where you were at?
Absolutely. I’d felt I’d made an achievement and, though I felt that achievement was done at my own pace and with my own timing, I had to climb back down the ladder and it had gotten a lot higher than I was comfortable with. So I descended it in a dignified matter until I felt safe again to take a breath. I really was thinking, “Do I want to continue?” It wasn’t that I don’t love what I do — it’s just that 16-year-old Leslie had decided kind of by accident to be in a band, and then one band followed another and then one record followed another and project after project and next thing I know, here I am. I did spend a couple of years waiting to be struck by lightning and to feel as compelled to do something else just like I was to play music when I was 16. While I waited for that to happen, I ended up writing more songs! So if I was gonna go back in again, I really wanted to make sure it was coming from the right place and I was making music for the right reasons. It’s sort of like never falling into complacency with someone you love or earning your place in your family by continually being good to everybody — there should be no assumptions around those things, you know?
There’s genuine real soul-searching going on in the new songs – did you really feel conflicted about whether to press on and whether to share that process?
It’s funny because I feel like I’m not capable of doing much besides what I do! I had to decide if I was up for sharing that much about these big huge swaths of time where I felt utterly lost. I was even wondering if I should I write about what I seemed to be writing about — like, ‘is this the kind of thing I want to be sharing with people I don’t know? People who don’t know me don’t know that I’m actually resilient and optimistic but I’m just having a really dark time right now where I don’t feel very resilient or optimistic. So is that something I want to share?’ I realized that this was a kind of conversation I wanted out there because that’s what I’d been looking for when I was in that mindset. I ended up discovering these life buoys, like Pema Chodron [the American Buddhist nun, writer and teacher] or this podcast that I love called On Being by Krista Tippet, which is basically philosophers and scientists and poets sitting around talking about how to live. So stuff like that really buoyed me through that process. I thought if there had been some resource around where I didn’t have to compound my hard times by feeling ashamed of having hard times, maybe it would’ve helped me through that. So eventually I landed on the idea this was a worthwhile conversation to put out there into the world, which doesn’t often leave much room for people to give themselves a break for having a rough time.
Did you think the spare, stripped-down sound for Pleasure reflects the songs’ emotional content?
I felt like all I really had the capacity to write about at that point wasn’t something that needed to be embroidered. A lot of it was pretty raw. It felt like a lot of what I was doing was trying to pare things down by trying to live well. With Metals, there was a lot of big bombast in strings and horns and thick arrangements — a lot of force, too. It sometimes felt like a battle cry or something. Even though songs like “Caught a Long Wind” aren’t like that, there were still seven minds at work on those songs. Those are still live takes but they’re live takes with a lot of people involved. So this began almost as a meeker enterprise. I knew that a woman facing herself in the mirror of her character or consciousness pain or whatever mysterious thing was going on, that is a bony and stark and unflourished sound. I knew it wasn’t rich and that it wouldn’t make sense for them to be many minds at work on this music. Mocky’s such a close friend and with good friends, you can almost forget they’re even in the room sometimes. There was some real support there but that was the feeling, to have less minds and less hands and bodies. A supported solo album was how we approached it.
It’s still terrific to have Jarvis Cocker drop by on “Century”. His cameo reminds me of Vincent Price on Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”.
That was actually what I thought! I had done that little outro myself and I looked at it as almost like the end of a Shakespeare play where one of the players walks forward and says, “And so the tale has been told and you see how betrayal plays out,” or whatever. That’s what I wanted at the end of “Century” so I had done it. Then I thought, “No, no, no” — you can hear the sparkle in my eye because I can’t help but be tongue-in-cheek about narrating. So I was like, “Who’s my Vincent Price?” There was nobody but Jarvis.
INTERVIEW: JASON ANDERSON
The August 2017 issue of Uncut is now on sale in the UK – featuring David Bowie on the cover. Elsewhere in the issue, there are new interviews with The War On Drugs, Steve Earle and Jah Wobble, we countdown Radiohead’s 30 Greatest Songs and remember Gregg Allman. We review Peter Perrett, Afghan Whigs, ZZ Top and Peter Gabriel. Our free CD features 15 tracks of the month’s best music, including Peter Perrett, Floating Points, Bedouine, Public Service Broadcasting, Broken Social Scene and more.