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Feist holds a mirror up to her 'Multitudes'

On her sixth album, Feist's barely adorned honesty is consummate, the result of someone who has lived enough to have a story and worked enough to set it brilliantly to song.
Sara Melvin & Colby Richardson
Courtesy of the artist
On her sixth album, Feist's barely adorned honesty is consummate, the result of someone who has lived enough to have a story and worked enough to set it brilliantly to song.

The commercial machinations of the music industry detest stepwise maturation. Consider the constant chatter about what is young and novel, as if real excitement, engagement and even insight can flow only from the hitherto unknown. Yes, it is totally intoxicating to believe you are experiencing culture's bleeding edge with every incoming tide pool of best new artists; it is demoralizing, however, to remember that an entire industry exists to present them this way — the fresh and unblemished face of a still-innocent future — for someone else's profit. Youth titillates, reminding us of something we might have been but can now only witness.

After all, if and when we praise artists who have aged out of the music industry's laughably tiny window of mainstream viability to reach, say, 40 or perhaps even 30, it is often because of some unseen stylistic reinvention or perhaps a comeback after a supposed senescence. These are reminders that we might still become something else ourselves. (The third common option for the truly old? The legacy assessment, reserved for someone we fear may not last much longer.) But a methodical refinement of what you've been doing for decades and are now doing better than ever is not exactly sexy and, in turn, not easily sellable. This remains especially true for women in a biz that often treats its artists like produce, marked with unwavering expiration dates.

So it is for Leslie Feist, the Canadian singer-songwriter who has been making quizzical and inquisitive solo albums for a full quarter-century but has now arrived at her apogee, Multitudes. It is unequivocally the best album of her career, because it so clearly collects and examines the hardships, joys and takeaways of her 47 years, then shares them in ineffable songs stripped very nearly to their magnetic center.

Feist long ago went through her artistic reinvention, stepping through a past of free-wheeling punk and transgressive chicanery (alongside her former roommatePeaches) into intimate acoustic eccentricity, like Laurel Canyon retrofit for some contemporary art museum. On just five albums since 1999, she has repeatedly tilled that terrain, looking for another way to sing some complicated emotional truth with admittedly mixed results. On her sixth album, her barely adorned honesty — with her age and experience, her voice and faults, her letdowns and hopes — is consummate, the result of someone who has lived enough to have a story and worked enough to set it brilliantly to song.

If you know Feist's music at all, even if only fromher "1234" turn on Sesame Street or her early earworm about walking in knee-deep snow,"Mushaboom," you will immediately recognize her on any of Multitudes' dozen tracks. Late in her teens, Feist temporarily quit music because she'd damaged her vocal cords; her alto retains the resulting trademark grain here, as textured as a used sawblade even as she glides toward high notes or slumps into a whisper. "Forever Before" is so featherlight you could consider it a flight risk, but Feist's tone gives this hymn for committing to anything the gravity it requires.

And remember the rhythmic prance of "1234," how Feist found melodies in strumming and lightly slapping guitar strings like some diaphanousLeo Kottke? It's here in "I Took All of My Rings Off," her anthem for giving up on delusion but not the world, and "Love Who We Are Meant To," which spies the cad inStephen Stills' old chestnut and gallops in the other direction. Shaped by a modest cast of collaborators who excel at making songs better by disappearing into their structure, likeBlake Mills andShahzad Ismaily, Multitudes is the Platonic ideal of how a Feist record should sound — accessible but uncanny, comfortable but considered, pretty but pointed.

Still, as familiar as Feist may appear on Multitudes, most everything within the songs has changed, a mirror for the evolving circumstances of her life. In 2017, when she released the discursive and uneven Pleasure, Feist talked a lot about bailing on familiar expectations, or disavowing the sense that your life should follow a simple path that led to marriage, children and stability. "When you're younger, you just assume there's a golden door that will open, and there's some type of shining eternity,"she told The Guardian, dubbing the scenario a fantasy.

This was wildly prescient of the twists to come in the interim since 2017's Pleasure, a six-year tangle of total joy and utter despair. At the end of a 2019 arena tour, Feist adopted her first child, Tihui, unwittingly becoming a single mother before a world-reorienting pandemic began. The pair — "a matriarchy of two,"as she has put it — lived with her father,the explosive abstract painter Harold Feist, outside of Toronto in those early lockdown days. When he died a year later, she found herself negotiating a seesaw of new love and new loss, two extremes interwoven into a single enduring span.

Without a flinch or a wince, and mostly with spare accompaniment that highlights wisdom without overrunning it, Multitudes squares up to the takeaways. "Into the Earth" is a crystalline eulogy for everyone who will ever live, Feist reckoning our hopes for infinite transcendence with our limited-time reality. "Dust into dust as material must / Ash into ash into plexi and trash," she sings, her voice processed so that the timing and tone are warped, confusing past, present and future into an obdurate haze.

During "Of Womankind," she seeks strength not to accept what she cannot change but to criticize it, to chastise faults until she can reckon with them. There are snapshots of vulnerable women wielding pepper spray as they look for predators beneath their cars, of companies overpowering the people who once powered them. Remember, Feistabandoned an Arcade Fire tour soonafter accusations of sexual misconduct emerged against singer Win Butler; she publicly put her actions where her ideals were. "Come outside," she sings, voice replicated until it becomes a one-woman choir. "The trees hold out their arms and cannot tell lies." It is a mic-drop moment, Feist turning her back on the unnecessary problems of other people to find a better space for herself — and whoever else needs it, really.

Multitudes, as its name rightly implies, is not all dejection and confusion, not even close. Summoning Björk and Bon Iver, the shocking and radiant opener, "In Lightning," is about finding a way forward, even if it's only "in the intermittent bright." And its staid successor, "Forever Before," is a paean to her daughter, framed by shrugging off the childish indulgences of Feist's four decades in order to care for someone else completely. It is a love song for the letting go.

Every picture is, of course, more complicated than mere good or bad, happiness or sadness. Multitudes thrives in this ambiguity. "Hiding Out in the Open," for instance, documents the baggage that any relationship accumulates, a clutter of complications that we can never fully offload. "Nothing's gonna make us new / What's done is not gonna undo," Feist sings, letting the words droop until they slur, as if even she wants to avoid her own axiom.

But in the second verse, as she preemptively laments a hard conversation she needs to have with a lover, she grins impishly at the thought of their physical spark. "I want you warm as a loaf of bread / Thousand ways to be fed," she sings coolly, taking a moment before she lets out a happy little squeal just within earshot of the microphone. It is a sweet and disarming bit, an assurance that there's nothing wrong with indulging pleasure for the sake of briefly stanching the pain. Even on an album that is so unguarded and frank, the shout obviates any remaining divide between Feist and us, between sage and student. Is it that life is too short to worry about camouflaging the truth, or too long for it to matter, anyway?

In the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., there's awan pastel painting of Diane von Fürstenberg, the fashion icon who popularized the wrap dress in the West. Sitting on a stool, von Fürstenberg, then 55, wears one of those treasures. What's most striking, though, is her eyes, all distant and sunken beneath bags and heavy cheekbones. Her skin looks like crinkled parchment, pulled taut by unseen hands. That seems part of painter Anh Duong's point: "In my older face, I see my life," reads the accompanying text,quoting von Fürstenberg's 2014 memoir. "My face carries all my memories. Why should I erase them?"

That is how Feist feels during Multitudes, too — unabashed about the experiences of her past, unapologetic about the scars and creases they have certainly left on her future. In the last six years, she has witnessed death and birth and the intransigent burden of a world pushed repeatedly out of order. "Don't be sad, my friends / That's the last thing I'd say," she opens the masterstroke closer. "If you're sad, my friends / Why would I take that away?" It is her permission slip to greet the fullness of life — grief, joy, sex, sadness, all of it at the same time — without prejudice or self-doubt. Take the world as it is, not as you'd planned it. She sounds warm but worn, doing her best to lull a world as tired as she has proudly been to sleep, at least for a spell.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Grayson Haver Currin
[Copyright 2024 NPR]