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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Ammar Kalia

Feist: Multitudes review – a soul-stirring career highlight

‘Absorbing songwriting’: Feist. Photograph: Mary Rozzi

The six years since the release of Leslie Feist’s last album, Pleasure, have been momentous ones for the Canadian singer-songwriter. She has relocated to Los Angeles, adopted a daughter and lost her father. Death, birth and persistence inform her moving, raw and occasionally unpredictable sixth record, Multitudes.

Over the past three decades, Feist has established herself in indie music as one of her generation’s most distinctive voices. Since the release of her solo debut in 1999, she has produced Grammy-nominated and Juno-winning records that oscillate between intimacy and experimentation. At the height of her popularity – with the 2007 song 1234, which soundtracked an iPod commercial, or 2004’s Mushaboom – she harnessed pop-focused hooks and acoustic warmth, clothing layered compositions with a catchy simplicity. But her back catalogue is full of unusual sonic details too: 2011’s Metals is punctuated by dynamic bursts of stamping, shouting and scratching guitars, while Pleasure (2017) saw her stretching out into five-minute tracks that unfurl into swaggering riffs.

Across the 12 songs on Multitudes, Feist deploys this aptitude for melodic softness and severity in captivating ways. Throughout the tumult of the past few years, she has spoken of writing in slivers and shards. She workshopped sketches during several experimental live shows in 2021 and 2022, alongside a planned international tour with Arcade Fire, which she dropped out of following allegations of sexual misconduct against frontman Win Butler (“More than anything I wish healing to those involved,” she wrote). Back in California, she combined her ideas in recording sessions with longtime collaborators Mocky and Chilly Gonzales. Progress may have been gradual and at times faltering, but the results are remarkably clear-sighted and cohesive.

Opener In Lightning acts as a catharsis of sorts, with Feist singing choral harmony over clattering drums and synth bass, surrendering herself to the competing emotions of new motherhood and the pain of bereavement that inform the record. “If I’m frightened it’s just because/ Of the power vested in me,” she sings. That emotive power has its greatest effect when Feist is at her sparest and most intimate. The largely guitar-led Forever Before and Love Who We Are Meant To are standouts, her gossamer vocals pushed forward in the mix so we can hear her breath as clearly as the twang of fingernails on strings. Here she sings of the fine line between fear and fearlessness that comes with being a parent, while finger-picking cyclical melodies that soothe like a lullaby.

Watch the music video for Feist’s Borrow Trouble.

The interplay of Feist’s simple guitar lines and Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s swelling string arrangements creates the perfect setting for her introspective and perceptive lyrics. On the everyday pain of grief in Hiding Out in the Open she asks: “Everybody’s got their shit/ But who’s got the guts to sit with it?” On The Redwing she concludes that she does indeed have that capacity. “I live up to what I sing to,” she croons over a descending guitar line.

It’s absorbing songwriting, although tracks sometimes bleed into one another without much distinction. That is, until Feist bursts out of her acoustic languor on Borrow Trouble, lamenting over wailing electric guitar and emphatic drums that she has been “so good at picturing the life I was gonna be left out of / Rather than the one I’d made”. The music builds gloriously to a squealing baritone sax solo from David Ralicke before Feist screams until her voice breaks, as if pleading to remain within this life she has created.

Ultimately, the multitudes of the title are the difficult emotions Feist tries to live with – tender quietude and noisy declarations. The record is a career highlight from an accomplished artist producing luscious, storytelling music from experiences so foundational that they defy neat narrative.

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