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Review: Feist’s Pleasure Finds Fun Through the Unexpected

Discounting the outliers, Leslie Feist’s music is consistent and realized. She’s an art-folkie in the Mitchell/Dylan tradition or, among contemporaries, akin to Jesca Hoop or Lisa Hannigan. She has sonic fingerprints: harmonies laid like layered tissue paper, scratchy side up (think the end of “My Moon My Man”); songs existing on open-air sets of found sounds. But ask most people about her and they’d probably say “1234,” which wasn’t even originally a Feist song—a handoff from Sally Seltzmann of New Buffalo, Feist even called it “Sally’s Song” on setlists until it got too big for that.

Hence the perennial music-trade hazard: record a hundred songs and you might get some praise, but record one smash and you’ll hear about it forever. In 2017, it sounds like a relic: one of a light, carefree, quietly pastoral yet sync-friendly strain of indie pop that got Lumineers-ed into a joke and literally sent to children’s TV, and now hardly rates. A lot of artists and art got unjustly swept off by this development—it’s telling that 2017’s most prominent folkie, Father John Misty, operates from behind an impenetrable shell of irony.

The Reminder also had heavier material, like the lonesome blue notes of “Brandy Alexander” or “The Park,” which sounds like it was recorded in one and brought live shows to the perfect sort of hush, but which tended to recede into the background of her legacy. Feist recognizes this—how could she not? It’s part of why, in the decade since, her work has become less immediate, more retreating, something of a hard left.

But no: “This is a hard left,” she told The New York Times about Pleasure, her first new album in six years. Pleasure isn’t really one either, though—it’s as skeletal as advertised, further reversing the sharp turn of Feist’s mid-’00s, back to her core sound. The fuzz and buzz of early releases “Century” and “Pleasure” have stuck Feist with inevitable PJ Harvey comparisons, but the seeds were there as far back as The Reminder‘s cover of Nina Simone’s “See-Line Woman.” “The Wind” sets Feist’s dry-air backing vocals to their natural metaphor; the high lonesome “I Wish I Didn’t Miss You” and sedate Americana-via-Canada cut “I’m Not Running Away,” aren’t determined so much as circling warily around the same thought for so long it might as well be determination.

Feist wrote the album during a period of depression—in interviews she talks around but never quite about it, which is generally how it feels—and that sense of aimless exhaustion pervades the album. The self-affirmation of “Get Not High, Get Now Low” has a palpable faking-it-till-you-make-it. “Lost Dreams” wanders between rock-star gravitas (particularly “I am a dreamer,” delivered with unplugged swagger) and sprawling melancholia. The tension is haunting, not that Pleasure is sedate. The title track, with its twists and turns and pleasure-yawps, sounds fun largely because it sounds spontaneous.

Much of the album sounds similarly first-idea-best-idea, in the best way. The otherwise conversational “A Man Is Not His Song,” Feist at her Dylan-est (or, given its gender-flip, perhaps Marling-est) is played out by a clip of Mastodon’s “High Road,” a sudden “flamethrower of guy-sound and feeling.” It’s both jarring, like something just started autoplaying in another tab, and nudgingly playful—ah, so this is the song facade she’s talking about, this kind of machismo.

The spontaneity works on serious tracks, too. The spell of “I’m Not Running Away” is broken, never when you’d expect it, by call-and-response backing vocals. “Century” segues into Jarvis Cocker turning Shakespearean to deliver a spoken-word monologue about the dark night of the soul, which only sounds terrible on paper. Such un-obvious touches are everywhere, and of everything here they’re the least hard lefts. Her pop hits remain enjoyable, but what makes Feist’s albums hold up is the unexpected. Pleasure perhaps asks more of the listener than her first two records did, but really, the best pleasures do.