Under the Spell of Feist
The success of Let It Die (2004) percolated over two years wherein Feist (first name, Leslie) became a one-syllable wonder for a variety of music audiences. Armed with a disarming voice, Feist sprinkled folk and pop melodies inside a vat of loungey electronica, capturing the ears of at least 400,000 listeners worldwide (that’s how many units Let It Die sold). Factoring in the P2P community, well over half a million listeners are awaiting The Reminder. The anticipation greeting the return of this beguiling chanteuse is substantial and, dear readers, Feist does not disappoint.
How the subtle charms of The Reminder unobtrusively unfold are part of this album’s appeal. One is advised to experience The Reminder in solitude first, then perhaps listen with another person or two, and then again in solitude. By the third listen, the lyrics, always something of a puzzle where Feist is concerned, are less cryptic and the melodies take hold like the warm handshake of a new friend. A solid argument for extending the shelf life of the compact disc is this album’s colorful, well-designed booklet, which not only contains the lyrics but a mysterious Polaroid of dice. (How Feist loves to tease!) The fact that The Reminder was recorded in less than two weeks—in an old manor on the outskirts of Paris, no less—only adds to the sweetness of its fragrance.
Is Feist singing to a private audience of one? It appears so to me, especially on “So Sorry”, the album’s hushed opening. The first sound you hear is Feist’s voice, delicately purring the words, “I’m sorry/ Two words I always think/ After you’re gone/ When I realize I was acting all wrong.” Alone with her guitar, Feist touches on a universal truth of human relationships—“we’re slaves to our impulses”. It’s difficult to be rational in the heat of the moment, no matter who owes the apology. Her voice and her feelings open up as this quiet lament progresses. “We could hold each other tight tonight,” she suggests in such a manner that you could forgive her anything.
That voice just happens to be one of the most remarkable features on The Reminder. Nearly three years of constant touring has made Feist an even more confident vocalist. She savors the notes. This is not necessarily an improvement, since there certainly wasn’t anything unappealing about her vocal style on Let It Die, but her palette of emoting is far more variegated now. In fact, one of the most felt tunes on the album is entitled “I Feel It All”. It’s a joyously rollicking affair, all scratchy guitar, chimes, tambourine, and waves of rolling piano keys. “Ha!”, she shouts mid-song in a spontaneous moment of liberation, “The wings are wide… Oh I’ll be the one to break my heart.”
Such exaltations are balanced fairly evenly across the album by moodier, introspective pieces. Feist’s shimmering timbre on “The Water”, for example, is positively haunting. How Feist holds the first syllable of “water” further exemplifies her vocal prowess. The dirge-like mood, which incorporates a melody by Brendan Canning, seems inspired by Hurricane Katrina, especially in regard to the lines “Pale as a pile of bones/ You hope for your babies/ And this is how they grow/ Wind-battered, knocked over.” Vibes, horns, accordion, and bells gently decorate Feist’s somber piano melody.
In contrast, a wry sweetness consumes the whimsical “My Moon My Man”. (If you have not done so already, be sure to check the video where Feist skips about on one of those flat escalators designed to escort passengers between airport terminals.) Lyrically, it’s a bit of a riddle: “My moon’s white face/ What day and what phase/ It’s the calendar page again.” One characteristic of Feist’s songwriting is how she describes something with its polar opposite, i.e. the “truth lied” on “I Feel It All”. Here, her love is the “dirtiest clean”. (Thankfully, Feist keeps such word tricks to a minimum; they could quickly become cliché.)
Unlike Let It Die, which was evenly divided between original and covered material, Feist wrote or co-wrote all the songs and co-produced all the tracks on The Reminder. Actually, there are a few other people who deserve credit for the particular spell this album casts. Once again, Feist is joined by Gonzales (player of piano, organ, vibes, and drums) and Renaud Letang, who succeed in creating an album that’s anything but Let It Die, Part II. Whereas Let It Die was appealingly polished and programmed, The Reminder is a bit more organic and rustic. Witness the demo-like quality of “The Park”, which sounds like it was recorded in a park with birds chirping in the background. “Intuition” also contains that raw, burnished quality, replete with a “town hall” choir backing Feist towards song’s end.
Dominic “Mocky” Salole, a member of that “town hall” who also co-produced “The Water”, adds his deft touch to “The Limit to Your Love”, adding just the right kind of instrumentation for dramatic effect. Strings elicit a sense of anticipation, like the tremors of tension between two people who’ve just had an argument. As she often does in her songs, Feist uses the elements as metaphors for a relationship. “Clouds part/ Just to give us a little sun,” she begins, as if a couple’s stormy spar of words has subsided. Then, with a sudden shift in tone, the clouds darken as she realizes, “There’s a limit to your love/ Like a waterfall in slow motion/ Like a map with no ocean.” Sensing the hesitancy of her lover’s commitment she declares, “I know that only I can save me.” In this regard, “The Limit to Your Love” is a thematic cousin to the independent spirit of “I Feel It All”, though the musical approach is quite different.
In listening to a song like “There’s a Limit to Your Love”, one identifies the (possible) meaning of the album’s title. Feist’s songs map the ebb and flow of our own emotional tributaries. She clears away the cobwebs of her personal experiences so that we may be reminded of our own. After watching the video for “1234”, it’s hard not to visualize Feist dressed in a blue sequin getup frolicking amidst a sea of day-glow outfitted dancers, but the lyrics actually reveal the angst of teenage love. The music may be fun and frivolous (did you know that Feist plays banjo?) but the pangs of adolescence surface between the lines. “How My Heart Behaves”, Feist’s closing song, is a bit more direct with its sentiments:
The cold heart will burst
If mistrusted first
And a calm heart will break
When given a shake
For an album that begins with an apology, this couplet is a fitting conclusion, for such wisdom is earned through heartbreak. Whether listeners take the plunge with Feist into her emotional depths is almost immaterial: The Reminder is an exceptional album that should be experienced solely on the merits its stunning musicality.