Album Review: Feist – Pleasure

The Canadian musician teeters between optimism and loneliness with a handful of unexpected twists

If you’re lucky, at some point in life you meet a person who radiates an inexplicable warmth, like there’s a tiny star glowing inside of them. You don’t have to love them. You don’t even have to be friends. The person brightens whatever space they enter regardless of association. They immediately impact others surrounding them, even if they don’t engage in conversation. It sounds like some outdated hippie phenomenon, but for those struggling to name an encounter on par with this, all they need to do is turn to Leslie Feist.

Ever since she began her solo career in 1999, the Canadian musician has been gliding through life with an endearing aura both in her songs and her performances. Yet Feist’s career is sly. Her work has taken on a life of its own from outside forces (from iPod commercials to dubstep covers), but she creates it as she pleases, from ballad-filled romps to indie pop anthems, taking long stretches of time between each LP. After a six-year silence, she returns with Pleasure, an album where she actively goes against the flows and flowering of her past songwriting.

Presumably, the time Feist takes between albums should make her fifth full-length her best record yet. It’s an intimate release, one that requires graceful fingers to dig through its contents and lots of patience for unpredictable structures. Yet comparing it to past releases feels strange. Pleasure is not the next chapter in Feist’s narrative, but rather a step back from her story in total — a steady, surveying glance that analyzes her life up until now while looking curiously at the future. At first, Pleasure sounds like it’s shivering in loneliness because it’s quiet, much of it being recorded live in a room without heavy editing or mixing. There’s the old-school barren blues of “I’m Not Running Away” and the brief ominous percussion in “Lost Dreams” that’s reminiscent of Metals. But then the record gives way. Her spirit begins to glow. Optimism permeates every lightly plucked guitar string and scratch of her whispering voice. Feist is caught in the abyss of time’s eyes, and, somehow, its limitless expanse doesn’t feel so scary.

Pleasure is lined with notes from past Feist to future Feist. There are passages about retaining character, cherishing strength, and upholding loyalty. She writes each one as a double-edged sword that can deflate or elate listeners. As self-explanatory as a song like “I Wish I Didn’t Miss You” may seem, she uses a line like “You called me baby, I called you one too/ Until you spoke to me with another voice/ You sent in spiders to fight for you” to reverse oversimplified archetypes. Nightmarish imagery becomes a reminder that soured relationships aren’t always a choice, but rather the product of what’s expected. That reoccurs on “Get Not High, Get Not Low”, where living a life of extremes loses its chaos, as represented through vocal harmonies that slide divergently across the scale. On “Baby Be Simple”, she calls for nurturing self-love over acoustic swaying. No song so clearly outlines her letter-style advice like “Young Up”, a beautiful vintage slow dance about how to age with grace. “Fear not/ Y’ young punk,” she sings, both to herself and to listeners. “Everything that falls is falling/ Even if you don’t have your own back.”

Feist is no prophet of pleasure, and she makes sure to clarify this over the course of the record. Pleasure doesn’t fake an anecdote to the blues or hold the secret to a lifetime of happiness. What Feist does come to realize, however, is that togetherness — romantic, platonic, realistic — is the closest resource we have to securing stability. It’s there physically, too. Pleasure doesn’t have many collaborations, but when it does — like with Colin Stetson providing horns on “The Wind” or Jarvis Cocker orating a deadpan monologue on “Century” about the elasticity of time — they paint a comforting sense of safety. That’s why the title track, a slow-burning, oddly paced number declaring happiness to be a communal prize, roots itself in generational bloodlines.

Perhaps that deviation from straight-forward definitions of happiness makes Pleasure an outlier in Feist’s catalog. Over nearly 20 years, she’s proven herself to be a musician who glows with relaxed assuredness and authentic positivity. Though Pleasure uses autobiographical lyrics as weights and lo-fi gentleness similarly to past releases, she steers it through unexpected structures. The jarring end of “Century” feels apt. The Mastodon sample that roars into frame on “A Man Is Not His Song” fits snugly. What should be sonic outliers on Pleasure become snapshots of life, placed there on purpose to give the sense of someone digging through past memories, like tokens and ripped notes they hid in a childhood box. Some snippets are remembered there fondly. Other items were forgotten entirely. As Feist flips through life, she passes from one memory, one friend, one feeling to the next, but there’s no heavy-hearted nostalgia. It’s a distanced look at love and time to remember how, and why, to be gentle. In that, Pleasure is a record of patience, and each surprising twist in its understated songwriting is used to illustrate how Feist keeps her cool. As she says in “Any Party”, while drums crash and her voice flings around with a tipsy blush and crickets begin to chirp, “You know I’d leave any party for you.” Just like that, her trademark aura brightens the room. Feist is back, and, for the first time, it feels like she can finally feel the warmth that everyone has felt in her presence this whole time.

Essential Tracks: “Pleasure”, “Any Party”, and “Young Up”


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