On the final track of her new album, Multitudes, Leslie Feist speaks clearly and directly to her audience. “Don’t be sad, my friends/ That’s the last thing you’ll hear me say,” she sings. “If you’re sad, my friends/ Why would I take that away?” The sentences, strung with warmth and candor, don’t contradict each other – far from cluttering her message, it finds the singer-songwriter embracing each possibility with intention and open arms. Both things are simultaneously true: There’s no need to bring more sadness into the world, or bring people into sadness – that’s not the point of music, or any life-giving form of art – but if that’s part of your experience as you listen, take it in. In her effort to do the same while creating, Feist has delivered one of her most inviting and unpredictable records to date.
Multitudes, her sixth studio LP, doesn’t swing between extremes so much as it contains – well, it’s there in the title. Following her 2019 arena tour and before the start of the pandemic, Feist adopted her first child, Tihui, and when the world shut down, they lived with her father, the abstract painter Harold Feist, before he passed away a year later. Many of its songs started as lullabies sung to her daughter, and the project was first conceptualized as an immersive multimedia show alongside production designer Rob Sinclair. After workshopping the songs in a series of performances, she spent a few weeks tracking the album at a home studio near the California redwoods with frequent collaborators Robbie Lackritz and Mocky (Blake Mills also contributed production on a few tracks). Given the circumstances, it’s remarkable how effortlessly the collection itself tunes into the blurry space between new motherhood and new loss, between the self and the collective.
Starkness – both musical and emotional – is a quality Feist’s music has retained for a long time. But if you’re a fan of 2017’s Pleasure, which has become my go-to Feist record, you might miss the raw swagger that made its intimacy particularly special. But the hushed, introspective nature of Multitudes feels both natural and complex, its dynamism not absent but somewhat outstretched. The songs are intertangled even, and especially, when they contrast each other. In the thrilling opener ‘In Lightning’, she channels the elastic energy of Dirty Projects or Björk to mold chaos into a thunder that’s in step with her body: “If I’m frightened it’s just because/ Of the power vested in me.” It’s followed by the sparser ‘Forever Before’, which locates a different kind of power in the same place: “I’m soft in the heart/ Where hard edges align.” As she meditates between the words “fear” and “fearless,” her calm presence allows them to peacefully co-exist. And on the rowdy, magnetic ‘Borrow Trouble’, what might have been a scream of frustration on Pleasure scans instead as acceptance, absorbing the noise and harnessing the tension into an anthem of uplift.
There are moments when Feist’s directness is at once incisive, honest, and a little funny, and it’s often interesting to see what roads it takes her down. “Everybody’s got their shit/ But who’s got the guts to sit with it?” begins ‘Hiding Out in the Open’, which ultimately leads her to a revelatory bit that can be hard to stomach: “Love is not a thing you try to do/ It wants to be the thing compelling you.” On the previous track, the truth that “sometimes we don’t get to/ Love who are meant to” is self-evident but just as difficult to grapple with, but in doing so, she stumbles upon more complicated realizations, like: “Even denial is romantic/ And that’s romance’s disadvantage.”
Feist increasingly looks further out into the world, particularly in the second half, which gets to some weirder, more mystical places. But she’s the kind of songwriter who’s skilled in offering a way into the uncanny and ineffable, whether the scale is cosmic or personal. “I feel like I’ve decided that I wanna get a little subterranean and maybe acknowledge my shadow self,” she said in a recent interview, and she edges deeper in on the mesmerizing ‘I Took All of My Rings Off’, which is potent with symbolism. When she sings of being one with nature, as in ‘Become the Earth’, it feels like an embodied, transformative journey, echoed in the vocal layers and glitches that dizzy and reorient her. But it’s one of the more unassuming, maybe even weaker lullabies on the record that manages to sneak in the most revealing piece of wisdom. “The endless weight of our lives/ Can be lifted up like wings/ The underneath of our lives/ An effortlessness in it sings,” Feist observes on ‘The Redwing’. You just have to listen for it.