In the conveyor-belt, clickbait-swamped circus that is the new music media, taking a break is a dangerous thing. Off the back of her major breakthrough The Reminder in 2007 and its 2011 higher-charting follow up, Metals, there has been a six year period of relative silence from Calgary’s Leslie Feist. If she had any anxiety about her enduring place in listener’s hearts, she certainly hasn’t let it take control of Pleasure: this is not a triumphant, star-spangled, chartbusting comeback, but a nuanced, veiled, sophisticated expression, perhaps her most complete and personal project to date.
It opens with the musical equivalent of an establishing shot – 30 seconds of ambient murmur, a deliberate attempt to set her pacing, her setting and her terms for the record ahead. “Got what I want/Still it’s a mysterious thing that I want” is her opening gambit, the album in microcosm. The song unfurls and a solitary, vacuum-packed guitar lead echoes the isolation in Feist’s vocal lines. The track is Pleasure, but it’s a confused, primal quest for it rather than a simple declaration of joy.
If listeners have come in search of the new Mushaboom or 1234, they may be met with disappointment. The closest we come is Lost Dreams, not as catchable as the former tracks, but nevertheless one that will waft in and out of your resting mind hours after listening, on its own schedule. Feist’s voice is suspended mid air by nothing more than a dense fog of patient electric plucking and curious keyboard chords, the words of the title repeated upwards of 40 times.
Instead of chasing the earworm, this album explores a spectrum of intensely personal experiences for Feist, although anybody hoping for any salacious insights into her private life will have a job breaking down her poetically obtuse coding. A Man is Not His Song appears to set out to document a breakup, eventually extrapolating the specifics into a treatise on the very inspiration for songwriting itself. “A man is not his song and I am not a story/But I want to sing along if he’s singing it for me,” she sings in a rare moment of openness. The isolated theme continues on I Wish I Didn’t Miss You and Get Not High, Get Not Low, the latter a jangle of contradictions, all told via a levelled-out equilibrium that could belie genuine resolution or else could be a constructed self-preservation method.
Feist’s guitar playing veers from beautifully arranged, contemplative picking to controlled electric assertion throughout the album. The memorable I’m Not Running Away is a relatively straightforward blues number, one of her most accessible songs in 10 years. A swelling string section gives the track external form, proof that she is not resistant to expanding her songs when the moment calls for it. Similarly, The Wind ends with an exquisite breeze of brass and disrupted handclaps at its climax. Such details are what makes Pleasure such a study in understatement, urging the listener to lean in closer to hear the musical small print.
Two tracks tucked into the album’s second half perhaps hold the key to the album. Century is Feist at her closest to breaking point, a slightly panicky track driven by clattering, high tension percussion that accelerates until it is rocking on its tracks. When control eventually returns, it comes in the form of Jarvis Cocker, a deus ex machina here to offer the reassuring hand of wisdom on her and our shoulder. His spoken word portion may not have the answers we need, but he restores strength. Following track Baby Be Simple is the most confessional here, a self-tutorial on de-escalating anxiety. “I’ve been on fire, made from my thoughts,” she admits. By the end of the song’s journey, she appears to have found a semblance of contentedness, summed up in the track title’s three simple words.
Pleasure is a mature, unseeking artistic statement, uninterested in fitting into anyone else’s formula. If she ever did, she no longer has any desire to acknowledge commercial demands or trends with her music, but is looking deeply into her own truth to find inspiration. The result is her most satisfying and unified album to date.