Feist: Multitudes [Album Review]

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Interscope Records [2023]

Arriving six years after her last release, Canadian singer/songwriter Feist decided to workshop the songs for her sixth full-length album in a series of intimate residency events in Ottawa, Toronto and Hamburg. Throughout the 12 tracks of Multitudes, Feist returns repeatedly to the direct approach of folk music, finger-picking a nylon string guitar, stepping back from the more eclectic, electric approach on 2017’s Pleasure. Like many albums arriving after the pandemic, Feist is responding to the relative isolation of the long pause on regular life, much of it spent with only her newly adopted daughter and her dying father as companions.

In “Forever Before,” she sings eloquently of the change of having to adapt to caring for someone who is “sleeping right over there,” with minimal musical embellishments, some additional double tracking of her hypnotic voice and light orchestration that preserves the essential folky-ness of her approach. “Love Who We Are Meant To” is similar in tone, although the strings make a more immediate presence, while the delicate guitar moves toward classical stylings. In the similarly constructed, “Hiding Out in the Open,” Feist doubles and adds extra vocal tracks to create luscious harmonies, with light orchestration, as she affirms the need to live honestly in one’s feelings, because “love is not a thing you try to do/It wants to be the thing compelling you/to be you.”

Now not everything here is a lullaby, something a child could easily sleep through. The album opens with the bolder rhythm of “In Lightning,” one of the few tracks here with drums and a more experimental approach vocally, suggesting electronic enhancements, as she stacks her own voice and plays a staccato electric solo that lines up with the song’s sing-songy melody before her vocalizations and the strings provide a fitting end. The bolder “Borrow Trouble” has a marching drum rhythm, where the strings, synths, and a braying sax combine to create a sound reminiscent of a bagpipes in the distance, which is juxtaposed against the quieter acoustic wonderings of Feist as she ruminates on the human tendency to stir up conflict, “making wrong what is all right.” Near the end, Feist offers a cathartic scream as if to exorcize this all-too-common human conundrum.

Feist’s superpower tends to be the way her voice floats and swells, whether breathy or whispered, or bolder and layered on thick, it’s a delicate instrument that some have described as angelic. “Of Womankind” begins with simple vocals, a crowd of Feist’s stacked voices that celebrates feminine qualities, the “higher mind, be of womankind,” balancing the awareness of gifts women bring to life against the reality of their physical vulnerability, so that they are “hugging pepper spray at night/we check under our cars/to navigate this subtle maze/be exactly who we are.” Still quiet, but similarly impassioned, she begins “Become the Earth” as a gentle folk songs with strings as she reflects on the fact that we all eventually return to the organic elements of the physical world: “some people have gone and the people who stayed/will eventually go in a matter of days/dust into dust as material must/ash into ash into plexi and trash.” Mortality as compost, more or less, until her vocals are electronically altered, reminiscent of Laurie Anderson’s robotic voice experiments, repeating the elements: “periwinkle, cobalt, magnolia tree.”

“Martyr Moves” finds her singing about codependent family relationships over rhapsodic recorder, flute and clarinet tones, while “Calling All Gods” uses a flowing folk chant-like melody over subtle percussion to offer up a prayer to any listening deity, as it’s “dark in all directions” and we’ve endured some “deep humiliation.” There’s a certain artful poetic performance quality to Feist’s work here, no doubt fueled by the unique working environment of her workshop residencies, which pulls the songs toward a more universal expression that is less personal, designed more for impact in the moment. For instance, in the closing “Song for Sad Friends,” Feist suggest that sadness in response to the way the world is going is an honest appraisal of a world where “good and evil (are) locked in an eternal embrace.” Following a melancholy instrumental section led by organ and strings, Feist places special musical emphasis on the line that their feelings “prove the mettle of your heart,” which creates a musical resolve around the idea that these feeling establish a stable grounding to begin taking on the challenges before us.

The use of nylon stringed guitars, the folkier songwriting approach, and the reflective quality in many of her lyrics, suggest a period of artful rumination for Feist. Her work seems to stand apart when she brings a more creative edge into the pieces, which she often manages as she manipulates her voice making use of the studio, but the more delicate and reflective nature of this album clearly speaks to the moods of her recent experiences, the passing of her father and watching her daughter as she grows. In the very middle of the album is “I Took All of My Rings Off,” a lush, textured piece which an exotic world music tilt that underlies the essential fingerpicked guitar, as she imagines getting back to her own essential identity when she “sang to the birds who lived in the tree/they know all about me.” Each of us may contain Multitudes, but on the songs here Feist attempts to get back to her true self and provides a musical path she’s happy to share with her listeners.

“In Lightning” / “I Took All Of My Rings Off” / “Hiding Out In The Open”

The Roches / Lucy Wainwright Roche / Suzanne Vega

Pleasure (2017)

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Brian Q. Newcomb

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