Canadian chanteuse Leslie Feist’s latest release, Pleasure, is a “nostalgia-free” record: it relies, instead, on the fluid instinct toward what “is”. (If that makes zero sense to you, for goodness sake, don’t let anyone know, and keep your tongue lodged firmly in your cheek.)
It’s been six years since she’s dropped an album, and in that time she’s toured extensively, wavered in and out of depression (though she noticeably eschews that term during interviews, preferring to describe her sadness as being a “dark night of the soul”), and questioned whether or not music was something she desired to continue pursuing – and if so, why and for whom.
Her conclusion, given in recent interviews, is that she writes for no one other than herself. She has remarked that the placement she landed in an Apple commercial back in 2007 (the one that led the nation to identify her as the singer of indie-pop song 1234) wasn’t her responsibility or decision, and neither is maintaining the ensuing image left in its wake, an image she hardly identifies with. The truer side of her music – which we were given a taste of in 2011’s Metals – is less accessible and charming than the glib Feist who rubbed shoulders with Elmo: it waxes and wanes on the tides of melancholia and anxiety, fluctuating erratically between extremes of emotion and instinct. Pleasure is relentless foray into this no man’s land, and it sounds very much like a self-conscious attempt to be unfettered by convention and interpretation.
It’s a pretty sparse record, from both a stylistic and thematic perspective. Much of it was recorded live, made evident by a hissy mix and minimal to no touch-ups. The main instrument on display is Feist’s beautiful, weirdly agile voice, which she uses to good effect throughout. Though intensely private, she thankfully gives something essential of herself away just by the way she breathes in between phrases – there is a mysteriousness in the very modules of her utterance that is compelling and comforting, even when the words she’s saying have no immediate meaning.
But the sweetness of her voice alone isn’t enough to carry the unwieldy weight of this album. The melodies wander and writhe beneath random instrumentation, breaking off entirely at certain moments and giving way to segments of indulgent sussing and friction. The heavy metal band Mastidon makes an appearance at the end of the otherwise meditative A Man is Not His Song. While apparently meant to be an ironic commentary on chauvinism within the music industry, the angry, intense burst of sound makes no sense within the context of the album. It’s noise for the sake of noise and fails to be innovative. It, along with a creepy monologue on the nature of time and despair at the end of the song Century, sounds half-baked and tired.
At times, Feist leans back into more palatable song structures – The Wind and Baby Be Simple feature little more than her voice and guitar, and allow her to sound free-form without being thoroughly inaccessible. Lyrically, the songs she’s penned for this record are far more impressionistic than anecdotal – they sound like the open-ended murmurings and strumming of a musician singing unfinished songs in front of a trusted group of heroically patient friends. “A chromosomal raid/built by what we got built for/as much as what we avoid,” she sings on the titular track, setting the tone for the rest of the songs. It’s an example of how incongruent our inklings can be when made to muscle up alongside the perception of others: the human mind can be alarmingly myopic when operating reactively. We can not, and ought not, interpret ourselves to ourselves, with no regard for how “the other” will respond.
While this record has been met with a clamor of praise from critics who laud Feist for shedding the typical language of songwriting and song-structure, I highly doubt many people will experience genuine consolation when listening to this oddly nascent cobbling of songs. Sure, there will be an intellectual admission of how raw, frank, and visceral this music is – “a triumph of savage beauty,” some elitist blurb might gush – but beyond that, there will be no movement of the sluggish heart, no epiphany hidden beneath the relentlessly claustrophobic telos. There’s been a scrambling to describe hidden themes of community, making peace with growing older, and living in the “now”: even the dissonance of the songs themselves, the jarring randomness of certain elements and layers, has been praised as indicating some kind of imploded brilliance.
I don’t want to discredit the fact that Feist’s experience of depression likely played a role in the final flavor of these songs. I can only imagine how frightening the seasons of confusion, fear, apathy and heaviness are in the life of an individual who has depression. But I don’t think it’s entirely honest to describe a collection borne out of a subjective experience of “non-being” as a “triumph,” especially when nearly every song is doggedly self-referential. A steely-eyed look at the helter-skelter state of her mind and emotions at a given time, sure. A reflection on mental illness and loneliness, okay. A personal opinion on the purpose of life, very well. But a shimmering triumph imbued with “bracing truths,” as put by Rolling Stone? I disagree.
To my lights, listening to this album is like looking at an awkward, enormous hunk of modern art. It has no frame, no structure to help you categorize and synthesize what you’re ingesting – almost mocking your need for semiotics. The piece makes no sense to you, but its hulking angles demand that you stare at it. It bears no resemblance to anything you actually identify with on a profound level: it’s more like a crumpled tissue, depressing in its corporeal basicness. What is it I’m supposed to be seeing? You ask yourself. And then you realize you’re expected to impose your own meaning on it, or else just ascent to the absurdity of everything. You either sentimentalize (“Of course! It’s George Washington working through his daddy-issues! I can see it and I think it’s tremendous”) or you retreat behind irony, because either of those options is easier than admitting that you think the work lacks teeth. It lacks meaningful interaction with the human soul because it references nothing beyond matter in interaction: it has no spirit.
Feist’s album leans too heavily on the dark and disjointed – it navel-gazes and fails to lock eyes with its audience. While I enjoy much of her past work, and think she has one of the most unique voices of our time, this project likely won’t make a lasting impression on the musical landscape, insofar as it simply fails to translate. As people, we’re built to seek symbols and signals – we’re constantly atwitch with a need to be concretized, actualized, penetrated, and immortalized. We want to apprehend, to be reminded of some ultimate structure and purpose – and though we deny it, we desperately want to know there’s something beyond our subjective experience of life (cerebral panic might be more fitting) and the dogmas of science. Walker Percy put it well when he wrote, “The pleasure of reading Dostoevsky derives from a recognition and a confirmation. The dismay of looking at a bad painting or reading a bad poem is disconfirmation.”