There is, in music, a vague notion of recordings made together, in the moment, holistically, and somehow rural—best described, perhaps, as cabin music. Not a genre but more an effervescent feeling, this notion really spiked in 2007 when Justin Vernon secluded himself in a cabin in Wisconsin and returned to the world as Bon Iver, with For Emma, Forever Ago in hand. But the idea goes back further than that, to 1968 with The Band and Music From Big Pink, and even further, back to unsung giants of folk legend who inhabited real cabins, not as places of musical retreat, but in a life of constant creation. Maybe their ghosts are what circle through material made this way, what make it grip, make it haunt.
So, the beginning of 2011 brought Leslie Feist to a “cabin” to record new material that would become Metals. The result is something quite refreshing. To Feist fans, the album is tinged with just a bit of familiarity, mainly in her vocals, which weave through the music, landing on just the right notes with just the right intensity, like they always have. But gone are the bouncy, bubbly rhythms of hit song “1234”. Gone too are the happily echoing bells from “I Feel It All”. Gone, it seems, is the lightness of her previous work.
But while what replaces these elements is certainly darker, it avoids such stereotypical distinctions as melancholic or macabre, and illusions of “deepness” that can be so stunting to an album’s presence. Metals is electrically gritty, right from the beginning, when “The Bad in Each Other” pours into ears like hot wine. The song is immediately alive, led by the electric guitar, lined with bassy piano and horns so deep they melt into the background, creating an ambiance that feels tremulous and exciting. The pace continues like this through much of the album, bending to softer, more contemplative whims on occasion that have enough substance to retain the momentum.
The tracks of Metals vary in both mood and exuberance. “How Come You Never Go There” was uploaded to Feist’s SoundCloud page a bit before the album was released, and is a potent example of the entire work’s electricity. “Comfort Me” sounds charmingly old, and is lightly poetic. “Cicadas and Gulls” is peaceful, featuring mainly an acoustic guitar and Feist’s voice, and is somewhat reminiscent of her earlier material.
In stark contrast is one of the album’s most interesting tracks, “A Commotion”. It is tense, beating, and percussive, and is perhaps a deliberate attempt to avoid repeating the “1234” phenomenon. It is the only track to feature male vocals, and uses them in a sort of primitive chant. It stands in a strange sort of half-contrast to the rest of the music, as though it were the underbelly of the other, more purposefully pleasant songs.
In interviews, Feist has mentioned that she took a year away from playing music at all before making Metals. This, too, is certainly felt. There is a clear difference between the person behind any of her other albums and the person who has created this one—evidence of a life lived.