Most artists court fame, but Leslie Feist’s story unfolded differently: ten years ago now, the Canadian indie singer/songwriter had an unexpected monster hit with “1234,” which rose to no. 8 on the Billboard singles chart after it was featured in a ubiquitous iPod ad. It was, ironically, the only song on her terrific third solo album, The Reminder, that she didn’t write herself: Initial demos were called “Sally’s Song” because the skeleton of the track was written for her by the Australian musician Sally Seltmann, though it was Feist who gave the song its signature, wryly charming personality. When the song blew up, Feist — who’d cut her teeth collaborating with underground heroes like Peaches and Broken Social Scene — rode with it, performing at the Grammys and on the Colbert Report, and even rerecording a version of the song for Sesame Street. (That’s when you know you’ve made it.) And then just as quickly and gracefully as she’d assumed the spotlight, she stepped aside. “[My career] has become kind of large and it really began for me very, very small,” she told the Canadian Press in October 2008, “like me alone in my bedroom with my four-track and a pair of headphones. I just need to go back there for a while to get my bearings again and then know what to do next. … I just need to let it rest for a minute.”
She came back not on her label’s timeline but when she felt she had something else to say, which was in October 2011, when she released her fourth LP, Metals. While it didn’t have the varied textures of The Reminder — still her best album, for its ability to move from upbeat, kinetic pop songs to gorgeous ballads without missing a beat — it created a consistent and alluring atmosphere. Recorded in the wide-open expanse of Big Sur, Metals had an earthy quality about it: all cavernous echoes and percussion like thunderclaps. Feist’s music feels connected to nature, but not in the benign, hippie way that connection usually evokes: She’s more drawn to chaos and tumult than peace. “I have always been motivated to evoke nature,” she said in a recent Pitchfork interview, “because I felt like the things going on in me were so much bigger than the words that are usually assigned to a feeling — you can say ‘volcano’ or ‘storm’ or ‘ocean,’ and you think, Oh, that’s big and elemental and it’s got force and can decimate.’”
Feist is back, in her own time, once again: This week she’s releasing a new album called Pleasure. Even though its arrangements are starker than those of Metals — the title track, which is also the leadoff single, features nothing more than voice, guitar, and an unobtrusive kick drum — there is a surprisingly forceful energy animating these tracks. Don’t let the acoustic arrangements fool you: These songs are alarm clocks more often than lullabyes. “I Wish I Didn’t Miss You” starts out sounding like a forlorn folk song but gradually transforms into something knottier, kicked up a notch by odd vocal reverb and chords strummed so hard they make your fingers sting. Similarly, with its angular guitar jabs, “Pleasure” plays out like the quietest punk rock song ever recorded.
As on Metals, there’s nothing on Pleasure approaching the mass appeal of “1234,” which is sure to frustrate listeners who came to her through that song — though Feist has been clear for a while now that she’s not trying to court that kind of audience. It’s an admirable strategy: Some artists spend the rest of their careers trying rather desperately to recapture the magic of their “breakout hit,” but with each album Feist seems to be moving further from it and deeper into herself, shrugging off the demands of mainstream success to make music of strange, intimate beauty. Pleasure is one of those records that makes you lean in close, because its joys are in the small details: The trilling vibrato she adds to the title line in “Baby Be Simple,” the pearly chord in the background of “The Wind” that makes the whole song shimmer, and, yes, the quick, so-odd-you-think-you-imagined it sample of the metal band Mastodon’s song “High Road” at the end of “A Man Is Not His Song.”
That last moment brings up another subtlety of Pleasure: Feist has a sense of humor. (Which isn’t a surprise to the fans who have been following her since her underground days: When she was part of Peaches’ raucous stage show, Feist performed with a sock puppet and called herself “Bitch Lap Lap.”) She hasn’t always found the right expression of it in her music; one of the best songs on Pleasure is the spunky “Century,” until Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker makes a silly-on-purpose spoken-word appearance at the end (“Century … how long is that?”), whispering his delivery like he’s imitating Serge Gainsbourg doing a perfume commercial. It’s a bit much, and it never quite integrates into the world of the album. Which she seems to know: She admitted to Pitchfork, “Well, sometimes I wistfully listen to Father John Misty or Jarvis Cocker or people who can be a little bit more like the narrators of a story that they’re observing. … But I have my way, and it’s the only way I know.”
If there’s a single moment Pleasure most lives up to its title, it’s this part halfway through the great, twangy “Any Party.” “You planned meeting me on your way home,” she sings, “And I try and reach you … ON YOUR NEW FLIP PHONE!” She delivers that last, gloriously banal line with a punky yelp. It’s irresistibly charming. “Any Party” is the sweetest song on this album, centered around a down-to-earth declaration of love, “You know I’d leave any party for you.” In the end, the song is a display of what Feist does best: imbuing ordinary moments with blurts of feeling, making a single acoustic chord ring out like a force of nature, and adding a subversive spirit to the quieter moments of life. It’s a song about devotion, domesticity, and contentment, but she makes it all sound like a wild ride.