For all the praise it garnered, Feist's 2007 album The Reminder became something of a guilty pleasure. Maybe it was the version of "1,2,3,4" played on Sesame Street, or the Apple-driven ubiquity of that song and "My Moon, My Man." Maybe it was how unapologetically sweet and decidedly not cynical the record was. Maybe it was a mix of all these things. Either way, it was an album that went from critical acclaim to surprising popularity to something we turned off when our friends got in the car.
So, done intentionally or not, Feist was smart to give us some distance between that record and its follow-up. Coming four years later, Metals is a Feist album in every note. It runs the same risk its predecessor did of falling into adult-contemporary blandness. But where that album succeeded on a warm charm to deliver its bittersweet tunes, things turn darker on Metals. There is no "1,2,3,4" or "I Feel It All" or "My Moon, My Man" here, no bouncy pop number to brighten up the proceedings. Instead, it's all spacious ballads and bluesy thumping pop.
It's those thumping moments that show this record at its most surprising. Opener "The Bad In Each Other" is fantastic, driven by handclaps and pounding drums under Feist's ringing guitar work -- something her live act plays up, but her albums often downplay. Her voice lilts through shadowy verses, but when strings join in and cymbals crash on the chorus, she sharpens her words with defiant purpose when she sings of "the good man and good woman [who] bring out the bad in each other." It's the kind of heartache we expect from Feist, but here she's pushing back against it. This isn't lovelorn balladry; it's fiery want and frustration.
"How Come You Never Go There" is a bit more swaying, but achieves a similarly dark heft. Feist peels her voice back to a whisper, and her guitar playing is equally restrained, both using quiet (rather than noise) as effective tension. Here, and on late album standout "Comfort Me," Feist uses elements we expect from her -- threadbare melodies, layers of shimmering voices, her own melting vocal tones -- but beefs them up with powerful drums and great guitar work. Her playing in these moments often plays like a light counterpoint to early-'90s PJ Harvey. It's got the same bluesy low-end, but Feist turns towards her pop charms rather than upping the fuzz.
These larger, cloudy moments often frame the balladry here well. Sometimes the big surprise doesn't work -- the brash voices on "A Commotion" sound distractingly like pirates from an off-Broadway musical -- but even when it falters it makes the quiet after it all the more affecting. "The Circle Married the Line," which follows "A Commotion," is as close to The Reminder as this record gets. It's warm and fragile, about escape and sunsets as conduits for clarity, but it is just too heartfelt not to work, especially since its gentle breeze comes after the dramatic clatter of its predecessor. "Cicadas and Gulls" is boilerplate acoustic Feist stuff, which is to say it is beautiful. But it follows "The Undiscovered First," the thorniest and maybe best song on the record. That song's haunting edges, accented by cinematic strings and a powerfully rangy vocal performance, makes the humble tones of "Cicades and Gulls" feel less quaint and more hard-earned.
Unlike The Reminder, Metals earns its moments of relief by admitting its heartbreak more openly. Where 2007 found Feist finding relief from disconnection in the power of bright pop tunes, 2011 finds her indulging her more contemplative side. This can sometimes push the album into something a bit too sleepy -- the middle of the record's sequence, from ""Circle Married the Line" to "Anti-Pioneer" is sweet but far too uniform in its hushed vibe -- but it also puts her voice front and center here instead of having it compete with her sizeable charm. The Reminder was a performance, where Metals feels like a deeply personal composition.
"Is this the right mountain for us to climb?" she belts out, along with an army of other voices, on "The Undiscovered First." "Is this the way to live, for you to be mine?" That she never quite finds answers to these is beside the point; Metals isn't an album about resolution. But when she's asking with this much passion, enough energy to forget us and overpower her controlled pop vision, that's when this album shows us something new. Those are the moments we'll keep coming back to, that no commercial or kid's show can take away from us.
It's an uneven record in some ways -- that middle sequence weighs it down and Feist still feels undersold as a band leader in the studio too often -- but while that may be what keeps it from the finding the same success its predecessor did, it's also what makes Metals the more exciting album to dig into.