“When I was a young girl I used to seek pleasure,” Feist sang thirteen years ago on ‘When I Was a Young Girl’. The fact that this line can be seen as a self-reflection on age makes it an all the more fitting comparison, but more importantly, there’s the sort of intense physicality that the singer-songwriter makes sure we don’t miss this time round, most evidently by titling her new album ‘Pleasure’. The sweet indie pop tunes on her 2007 album ‘The Remonder’ were, at their most sugar-coated, more akin to artists like Norah Jones than the 70s singer-songwriters like Dylan and Mitchell that shine through as obvious influences here. After her rise to popularity (most people probably know her for her hit ‘1234’, which was even featured on an Apple iPod commercial), it was not hard to see why she shifted to a more mature sound with 2011’s ‘Metals’. On her first album in six years, Feist embraces rawness and introspection like she never has before, evoking a powerful sense of intimacy while still retaining her knack for writing beautiful arrangements. It might not be as immediate as her more accessible material, but in the end it proves more effective and hugely gratifying.
At first, the lyrical content and sound may seem at odds with the album title. On the lead single, she repeats “it’s my pleasure”, and as if by self-fulfilling prophecy, the song explodes into a frantic climax fuelled by a bluesy rock n’ roll guitar riff and Feist‘s raspy PJ Harvey-esque vocals. But the singer-songwriter has opened up about her depression in interviews: “The day the word ‘pleasure’ sprung to my mind, it was a contrarian idea, because I was having too little of it at the time,” she told Pitchfork. Many of these negative emotions make their way into the record. She uses natural imagery on ‘The Wind’ (“I’m shaped by my storming”) and even invites Jarvis Cocker on ‘Century’ for a dismal and dramatic spoken-word monologue about “those endless dark nights of the soul”. More often than not, though, the lyrics come off as earnest and down-to-earth. The fascinatingly dynamic ‘Lost Dreams’ sort of mimics the title track’s musical theme, but the vocals evoke much more vulnerability. On the heartbreaking ‘I Wish I Didn’t Miss You’, Feist reflects on feelings of helplessness and self-imposed isolation. You can hear the rustic guitar and the analog-tape hiss in the background (the album was recorded live), and the lo-fi production seems like a step forward from the perhaps overly polished album ‘Metals’.
In fact, there seems to be a deeper meaning behind the roughness and minimalism of the album. On ‘A Man Is Not His Song’, perhaps the most thoughtful and conceptually interesting track on the album, Feist explores the relationship between a songwriter and his/her image, and to prove her point, cleverly ends the song with a snippet from heavy metal band Mastodon‘s ‘High Road’ (the juxtaposition only seems odd until one recalls their collaborative 2012 split single ‘Feistodon’). Later in the tracklisting, ‘Baby Be Simple’ sees her singing “rip me apart by the lore”, linking this previous idea to the skeletal nature of the songs here. By sounding as real as possible, Feist focuses on her creativity rather than her pop star status.
In contrast to such quiet moments are tracks like ‘Any Party’, which is as loud and epic as the album gets. The anthemic instrumental hook, with its distorted guitar, is filled with excitement, like a declaration and a celebration of the singer realizing that she feels human connection. The hypnotic ‘Get Not High, Get Not Low’ hints at an emotionally charged symbolism behind the loud/quiet binary: “I was bright as the sun/ Then Saskatchewan/ Then I laid low like the tide/ Then Bay of Fundy high/ I was living in extremes,” she sings.
Feist has spoken about how she likes building things, like for example a deck in her roof – she actually mentions that rooftop on ‘Baby Be Simple’ as a metaphor for how she held herself up in the toughest of times. However measured and restrained, this kind of simple optimisim ultimately presents itself into the album in a powerful way – and it lies, she seems to suggest, in the strength of making the decision to try.