The headline of one of the best Hollywood gossip stories you're likely to encounter this year reads, "Shia LaBeouf and Michael Bay Got in a Really Big Fight Over Feist." To prepare for an emotional scene in Transformers 3, LaBeouf plugged his iPad into a pair of on-set speakers and was vibing to The Reminder ballad "Brandy Alexander" when Bay abruptly shut the song off. Things got heated, "spit [was] flying," and Bay stormed off set. Whatever this incident tells us about Michael Bay (like maybe he's just really impassioned in his opinion that Let It Diewas a better record), it tells us even more about where we're currently at, culturally speaking, with Feist. Even among Hollywood titans, she's divisive. She has probably, over the past couple of years, helped an infinite number of jocks and action stars get in touch with their latent emotions ("It's a little feminine," LaBeouf told the Los Angeles Times of "Brandy Alexander", "but it touches me"). But most importantly, the low croon of her honeyed, creaky-door voice has become pop culture shorthand for "the diametrical opposite of what robots blowing shit up sounds like."
And yet, her third album, Metals, is full of dynamic outbursts. There's the chorus of austere, male shouts that punctuates "A Commotion", the towering, climactic swell of strings in "Anti-Pioneer", and plenty more folk-pop numbers that begin small but explode suddenly into stomping, hollering, densely peopled jamborees. Building on some ideas she first explored inThe Reminder's lively take on the folk traditional "Sealion", Metals is a record animated with,as she put it, "the movement of a lot of humans." Though her least immediate album-- it lacksThe Reminder's pop showstoppers or the charm of Let It Die's restless genre-hopping--Metals is a vivid evocation of a place that touches on fittingly vast themes about nature, love, and life itself.
To record Metals, Feist-- along with her trusty producers Chilly Gonzales and Mocky (who've been working her since she was Peaches' hypegirl back in early-2000s Toronto)-- headed out to Big Sur and built a studio on the side of a cliff. All the things you might associate with the area (majestic expanse, outdoorsiness, and Kerouac-sized spiritual interrogation) seep intoMetals' sound, which conjures panoramic vistas with quiet ease. String and brass arrangements (the latter of which heavily feature avant-saxophonist Colin Stetson) are omnipresent but never overworked: check out the way they briefly balloon into the frame toward the middle of "Anti-Pioneer" and then gracefully recede a moment later. Metals is invested in subtle, textural detail and shifting dynamics; it sometimes stays so quiet that a whole flock of birds would feel compelled perch on it, and then in the next breath it does something surprising enough to send them scattering in a flurry.
Metals is the Meek's Cutoff of Feist records, both in the way it eschews the traditional rules of the crowd-pleasing blockbuster, and also because there's a lot of talk about pioneers and mountains. Nature imagery is everywhere: the serene meditation "The Circle Married the Line" escapes the busy squiggles of modern life ("I'll head out to horizon lines/ Get some clarity oceanside") by boiling down a sunset to its simplest geometric forms, while the gorgeous acoustic number "Cicadas and Gulls" takes flight: "The land and the sea/ Are distant from me/ I'm in the sky." Metals displays a shift in Feist's perspective as a songwriter; after The Reminder she's said she's now less interested in writing songs that could be read as intimate and personal but instead crafting lyrics that read almost like sparse proverbs. (She's likened some of the lines on Metals to "adages and morals that you find embroidered in junk shops.") The resulting tracks feel universal, and not unlike Bill Callahan's Apocalypse, in their attempts to use the contrast the elegance of the things around us with the weird, erratic ways of human beings.
And now to address the break-dancing, earbud-wearing, silhouetted elephant in the room: there's no "1234" on this record. In fact, though it's by no stretch a difficult album, Metalsfeels deliberately uninterested in courting pop audiences or crafting easy hooks, which is why it feels like such a refreshing and slyly badass statement of artistic integrity. At the same time, this is also the reason it doesn't reach The Reminder's heights. It's a bit too even-keeled to incorporate the sense of pastiche that made her earlier two records so exciting.
Side B's most exquisite highlight is "Anti-Pioneer", a song that Feist started working on 10 years ago but could never quite capture to her liking on tape. Here, she got it so right: An unhurried guitar lick and the bluesy gust of her vocals roll like tumbleweeds over a minimal soundscape as she sings about a woman who was used to moving but, "for a year," set down her roots and "was anti-pioneer." A touring musician since her teens, Feist has spent the past 15 years more or less on the road, so it's hard not to read these lines as autobiographical. But the chorus brings in the universiality, applying that sense of restlessness to a healthy creative process: "When the flag changes colours/ The language knows." It's a fitting statement aboutMetals, and Feist herself-- shifting between moments of repose and restless explorations of new frontiers.