Four years after her last release, Leslie Feist is back with her newest album Metals. Her 2007 LP, The Reminder, although showered in Grammies and critical acclaim, was overshadowed as a whole by the dazzling commercial popularity of its cutesy earworm single “1234.” Now with Metals, Feist has created a more mature album, one that rewards its audience for careful listening, and one devoid of easy pop.
In the opening track, “The Bad in Each Other,” Feist introduces the audience to her album’s sophisticated songwriting. This track deftly combines folk and jazz influences: It opens with a sea shanty percussion line, then alternates to jazzy big brass exclamations and finally juxtaposes these disparate sounds.
Meanwhile, Feist’s lyrics in the song tell a beautifully sad, startlingly universal story, of two lovers changed for the worse by their crumbling relations. She sings When a good man and a good woman / can’t find the good in each other / then a good man and a good woman / will bring out the worst in each other.
Here, Feist effectively illustrates the tried and true tale of every stormy break-up. Two people who once loved each other can’t anymore and, in the context of their dissolving connection, they become aliens even to themselves. The tragedy of a failing relationship, as Feist heartbreakingly conveys, is that being unloved makes us feel unlovable.
But if “The Bad in Each Other” is an examination of the universal phenomenon of breaking up, it’s also the first chapter in an intensely personal story that spans the album. Metals could be interpreted as a connected series of musical memoirs. Viewed as a united work, it seemingly follows the life of one protagonist who loves, suffers and ultimately achieves real happiness.
This story progression, though probably culled directly from Feist’s life, never feels treacle or maudlin in her hands. Even “Graveyard,” the album’s second track, in which a mourner visits dead relatives in a cemetery, defies its premise’s massive potential for sappy sentimentality. The song is never self-pitying or exploitative. Rather, the track sounds jazzy and subdued almost throughout — until the end, which rises triumphantly with a joyous repetition of the song’s grim chorus proclaiming, Bring them all back to life!
What’s disconcerting about Metals is the diversity of its songs. The album hardly seems connected on a cursory listen because Feist alternates between tracks so drastically from one musical style to another.
The string-drenched “Caught a Long Wind,” for example, is followed immediately by “How Come You Never Go There,” whose synthetic-sounding vocals and plodding bass line come as a jolt by comparison to its predecessor. And thereafter comes “A Commotion,” with an urgent string pulse, in which male singers, seemingly channeling sumo wrestlers, huskily shout, “A commotion!” Listeners hoping for a connected listening experience might be jarred by these sudden swings in style.
But the songs on Metals, although not stylistically uniform, are consistently brilliant. It would be near impossible to choose one song as the album’s highlight, or as an equivalent to The Reminder’s “1234,” because so many of the songs are standouts.
There’s “Bittersweet Melodies,” in which Feist uses a simple beautiful tune to symbolize her memories of an old romance. Then there’s “Undiscovered First,” a cymbal-rattling cowboy anthem whose lyrics use natural forces as a grandiose metaphor for a relationship’s promising beginnings.
“Comfort Me,” an increasingly absurd series of 5-10-5 haikus, easily intoxicates with its melody and its structured ascent into a big boot-stomping climax. And “Get It Wrong, Get It Right” presents a montage of bucolic imagery and a serene, subdued melody.
Metals is remarkable in that it really doesn’t have any clunkers. The album’s songs are unique and complex, with meaty lyrics and intricate compositional structure throughout. There is perhaps too little stylistic connection between songs, but in light of the quality of all the individual tracks, such skittishness is forgivable. With this album Feist has delivered a collection of songs worth listening to again and again — if not for compositional complexities, then simply because they all sound fantastic.