It’s hard to call Leslie Feist an underdog. A world-famous, borderline household name after the mega-success of 2007’s The Reminder and its juggernaut of a lead single “1 2 3 4”, Feist was (along with rapper Drake) one of the only A-listers on the short list for the $30,000 Polaris Prize for best Canadian album of the year. And yet, when her name was announced on Monday night at the gala award ceremony, a wide ripple of surprise pulled through the room. Most flabbergasted of all seemed to be the artist herself. Within seconds of the announcement, Feist was hiding under her table, a gesture at once winningly honest and thrillingly theatrical. Which, come to think of it, is a pretty good way to describe Feist’s intimate, artful music. Especially on her slippery, haunted (and now Polaris-winning) Metals, hers is an approach to songwriting and performance that blurs lines, that oscillates between tender quietude and grand symphonic bursts.
“This is my worst nightmare”, she exclaimed, standing beside host Grant Lawrence as he struggled to hold up an oversized novelty cheque. “You’d think after a lifetime of terrible speeches that at one point I’d think to write something down. But I never do because it seems presumptuous.”
Well, at least in this instance, she’s right. It would have been presumptuous to expect a win on this night. Because not only was her competition fierce — this was arguably the strongest short list in the Prize’s seven year history — it seemed that all prognosticators were betting their money on another horse. Montreal’s electro-pop chanteuse Grimes seemed to many the most likely winner, a pick that would have been in keeping with the prize’s general trend toward records which emphasize hybridity and synthesis of genres. (Fucked Up (winners in 2009) blend hardcore with Broken Social Scene-esque rock, Caribou (winner 2008) mixes electronica with classic rock tropes, Owen Pallett a.k.a. Final Fantasy (winner 2006) mingles classical elements with a 21st century pop sensibility, etc.)
When Grammy-winning Arcade Fire won the prize last year — the first genuinely “big” name band to do so in the short history of the award — some wondered if that signified something bigger than it probably did. Was this the end of the Polaris Prize as a celebration of up-and-comers? Was this the beginning of an unhappy association between the prize and the Grammys? Was “external validation” going to affect the way the grand jury sorted through the pile?
Feist’s win complicates these questions in interesting ways. Like Arcade Fire, Feist is hugely famous, successful, and Grammy-nominated. Some will see her win as a “safe” pick, a way for the grand jury of 11 music critics to “settle” on an agreeable winner. But Feist’s winning record is anything but “safe”. A dark, slippery, often obtuse album, Metals demands multiple, close listens before it can enter your bloodstream. It is an album of fragmented pop songs, a collection of solid tunes deconstructed into fractious, but still interconnected, parts. It is lovely, but difficult, and it has met with a favourable, but rather puzzled response from most every critic and fan one might encounter. People tend to like the album, I guess, but it is a much smaller number who claim to love it, especially when compared alongside her previous work.
But the grand jury, perhaps due to the hours upon hours of deliberation (much of which amounts to careful, multiple listens of the records) found that, above the others, this was the album that soaked in the deepest. In a year when alt-country artist Kathleen Edwards (my pick) made her career best album, Toronto rapper Drake shook up the industry with his platinum-selling pseudo-existential Take Care, Handsome Furs offered a stunningly effective political record that anticipated Occupy, and Vancouver fuzz-rockers Japandroids managed an entire record of anthems that feel terrifically, viscerally immediate, there was no reason to presume that this would be the one to win out.
Credit to Steve Jordan, founder and executive director of the Polaris Prize, for devising a system which allows for such surprises, year after year.