Leslie Feist finished her first public performances of the music on Multitudes with her audience sitting rapt (if somewhat bewildered) on the stage and the singer playfully escaping through the back of the auditorium. A daunting trick to pull off, it was the Canadian singer-songwriter’s means of capping off the “egalitarian theatre experiment” that she concocted with Rob Sinclair – designer for equally unorthodox concerts by David Byrne and Peter Gabriel – and initially presented in Hamburg, Toronto and Ottawa in 2021 and then in Los Angeles and other US cities the following year.
Besides being a thrilling piece of stagecraft, this climactic reversal of the usual positions for performer and listener was an emblematic expression of an artist who’s long sought to dissolve the customary boundaries that surround her. Even when her output was more characterised by the brightest, snappiest moments of her 2007 breakthrough The Reminder and the instantly hummable “1234” rather than 2011’s starker Metals or 2017’s rougher hewn Pleasure, Feist’s hope has always been to create a greater closeness with whoever happens to be within earshot of her songs. If doing so requires some potentially radical approaches to her music’s shapes and forms, then so be it.
Feist’s fifth album since 1999’s Monarch…, Multitudes constitutes the most ambitious and possibly most daring effort in her campaign to encourage that proximity. After workshopping the majority of these 12 songs during the recent performances, Feist spent a few weeks recording the album in a specially built home studio near the California redwoods with her longtime collaborators Robbie Lackritz, Mocky and Chilly Gonzales. Other players included Amir Yaghmai and Todd Dahlhoff from her live band, Lou Reed sideman Shahzad Ismaily and Perfume Genius producer Blake Mills. Ranging in scale from spare settings for Feist’s voice and guitar to grander affairs complete with brass and strings, the performances have such a degree of intimacy, they can feel uncomfortably close at times, as if they bring you into a space that usually stays private. Like Nick Drake on Pink Moon and Joni Mitchell on Blue – two reference points most evoked in the achingly delicate likes of “Love Who We Are Meant To” and “The Redwing” – Feist draws her listeners in so closely that even the smallest gesture carries an unexpected weight.
That the songs contain such a wealth of emotion is a consequence of two profoundly psyche-reordering events in Feist’s personal life: the birth of her daughter and the death of her father, both of which occurred not long before the more global-scaled disruptions of early 2020. As she coped with the repercussions amid the early months of lockdown, songwriting “felt simultaneously superfluous but also necessary”, as she tells Uncut. The resulting lyrics eschew the usual acts of poetic evasion – or the “thousand different ways to hide”, as she puts it on “Hiding Out In The Open” – to franker expressions of love and loss. Some are difficult to hear, whether it’s the poignant consideration of the near-misses or almost-weres that fill our romantic histories in “Love Who We Are Meant To” (“We will struggle with the truth/That sometimes we don’t get to love/Who we are meant to”) or the daily experience of fear that she chillingly articulates in “Of Womankind” (“Hugging pepper spray at night/We check under our cars”).
While such struggles are daunting, they’re leavened by the hope that these pains and challenges may help dismantle existing patterns of self-doubt and self-sabotage, a heartening possibility to anyone else who wonders how they got “so good at picturing the life that I was gonna be left out of rather than the one I’ve made”, as she sings in “Borrow Trouble”. The most affecting realisation of all may occur in “Forever Before”, as she quietly considers how everything she thought she knew has been challenged by the little creature “sleeping right over there”, words she sings with all due softness, care and awe.
Yet as deeply felt as these songs obviously are, Multitudes feels anything but precious or fragile or even very vulnerable. Instead, the album may be even bolder and more bracing than the theatrical experiment that preceded it. As she did on stage, Feist delights in dismantling the cliché of the forlorn singer-songwriter pouring one’s heart out to the accompaniment of a strummed acoustic guitar. While the songs started that way at the recording’s onset – and a handful retain that rawness – their shapes were often distended as they incorporated other elements, including the remarkable variety of voices that Feist weaves together in angelic choral passages and less obviously mellifluous arrangements. Beyond Kate Bush, it’s hard to think of another artist who matches Feist’s love of doubling and tripling her vocals, and then further manipulating the results, sometimes pitching them higher or lower in eerie digital glissandos. In the case of “Calling All The Gods”, her various deployments of her voice – melodic, harmonic, rhythmic – become inseparable. In the busiest, densest moments of Multitudes, the polyphony of Feists at hand far exceeds any of her peers’ comparable pile-up of Joni-isms to approach the kind of sheer breathy abstraction more typically found in the compositions of Meredith Monk. Moreover, Feist’s deep dive into the possibilities of Dolby Atmos surround sound for the Multitudes performances helped shape her approach to the spatial arrangement of her vocals here.
That immersive quality is most pronounced in Multitudes’ quietest passages, songs like “Forever Before” and the heartrending “Martyr Moves” emerging from the same murky underwater world of echo as Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom or Arthur Russell’s “A Little Lost”. But there’s room for more extroverted moves, too. In the opener “In Lightning”, the storm cloud of clattering percussion and Mellotron-style keyboards swells and breaks with impressive brio. Just as vivid is the array of squelches and burbles layered on top of her vocals on “I Took All Of My Rings Off”, a meditation on grief that builds into an expression of almost ritualistic fervour. And lest there be any listeners who still ache for the blustery brand of epiphanic indie-rock that she helped foster as a member of Broken Social Scene, they get what they need in “Borrow Trouble”, a wry rumination on getting trapped by the same old mistakes (“It’s a poor skill to get good at/Making wrong what’s all right”) delivered with maximum exuberance. Even more thrilling than the sound of a splendidly wonky saxophone solo is that of Feist joyfully hollering until her vocal cords betray the strain.
In its own way, the pained yet heroic yelp that escapes her throat may be as quintessential to Feist as the live show’s curious climax. It’s a matter of her pushing deep into the most difficult emotions and discovering an opportunity to challenge and surprise herself, and maybe feel more human and more connected as a result. Here and throughout Multitudes, she sounds fearless in every sense of the word.