On Multitudes, Leslie Feist is a new mother softly soothing her baby to sleep with lullabies of fear and death. She is a sorcerer channeling thunder and lightning, finding life in the rumble and the flash. She is a grieving daughter with a new understanding of what it means to be alone. She is an exorcist driving out our collective anxiety with screams that could wake the dead. She is a 47-year-old single parent looking beyond romantic love. She is a choir leader singing to the birds, and the birds are singing back.
These pieces of her sit alongside the ones she’s stacked up across two decades of sidelong stardom: The cosmopolitan chanteuse. The chirping indie rocker. The reluctant pop idol. The translator of millennial heartbreak. The solitary blueswoman. The creative community builder. The spartan folkie. The seller of digital devices. The champion of all things analog. The naturalist. The wind. The water.
Written during the blurry height of the pandemic, when Feist was beginning a new life with her adopted daughter, Tihui, Multitudes is largely a testament to hushed perseverance amid personal and collective upheaval. It is her quietest album, an invitation to introspection. Half of the 12 songs here don’t have any drums whatsoever, and most of the rest lack anything resembling a steady backbeat. And whereas the distorted tones smeared over 2017’s Pleasure could make it seem as if she were squaring off against her guitar and microphone, Multitudes mostly sounds as cozy as a winter sweater that’s three sizes too big.
Nearly everything revolves around her voice, a darting melodic hummingbird flying right next to your ear, along with her acoustic strumming and fingerpicking, calling back to classics by Nick Drake, Leonard Cohen, and Joni Mitchell. Several times across the record, a chorus of Feists sings lines in the round, offering an illusion of plenty. On “Forever Before,” an ode to Tihui that details the perspective shifts that come with no longer living only for oneself, she repeats the words “fear” and “fearless,” stretching them out wide, and the effect is as serene as a deep breathing exercise. This is comfort music that emerged during a period when Feist, and everyone else, needed lots of comforting—ASMR-folk for the tattered soul.
At times, the album’s lowkey spareness can make it feel plain; lullabies, after all, are meant to lull. Feist’s canny sense of rhythm, the way her words dance between snare and bass, is missed. As is her lightness, her sense of play. The intimacy created by Feist and longtime producers Mocky and Robbie Lackritz puts realness to the fore—she is up-close, personal, unvarnished—but this can also snuff out the mystery that hangs like smoke over some of her most intriguing work. And however lovely, a song like “The Redwing” can’t help but feel a little redundant amid an oeuvre filled with references to fine feathered friends and the freedom they represent.
When Multitudes gets fuller, weirder, and more unpredictable, it hits its peaks. “I Took All of My Rings Off” plays like an ancient fable of enlightenment made modern. She removes the jewelry from her ears, fingers, and dreams, buries it in the dirt—and then things get cosmic. The song shakes off its gravitational pull about halfway through, as Feist’s voice is suddenly enveloped in a cloud of reverb. She sounds like she’s floating hundreds, then thousands of feet above the ground, awash in vintage synthesizer tones that conjure a retro futuristic moonshot. The song is messy and meandering, easy to get lost in. It’s also one of a few tracks on the album that features production from Blake Mills, whose adventurous way with singer-songwriter music—from his work with Perfume Genius to his arresting solo album Mutable Set—is a perfect fit for Feist.
Opener “In Lightning” is the most propulsive thing here, where Feist makes her own version of a vintage Björk banger. Booming percussion that sounds like an army of marching redwoods is smashed together with the singer belting in full voice and a swooping string arrangement from Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, the veteran musician and composer whose credits range from Flying Lotus to Mary J. Blige. The song is about embodying the brightest and loudest forces, and Feist unequivocally steps up to the task.
She has often written about the wonders of the natural world, but Multitudes represents another subtle perspective shift: Instead of concentrating on her small place within the enormity of the elements, she now finds solace, love, and oneness in Mother Nature. Sound corny? It’s not. “Become the Earth” introduces itself like a stripped-down Roy Orbison or Elvis ballad—except those guys never sang about the process of our bodies decomposing in the ground only to rise again as overgrown vines. At the midway point, the music dies, and Feist begins her ascent, her voice glitching and breaking up in the void, as if she’s losing her signal with human existence. “Some people have gone, and the people who stayed/Will eventually go in a matter of days,” she sings, matter-of-factly, making the idea of death as approachable and universal as it should be but rarely is. It’s hard not to think of the song as a fittingly unconventional elegy for her father Harold, an abstract painter who passed away in the spring of 2021.
Why search for transcendence in a romantic relationship, she seems to say across Multitudes, when you can find it in a giant sequoia that was here long before us, and will be here long after. Or in the camaraderie of womankind. Or in the baby sleeping in the corner. These are the kinds of noble sentiments we’ve come to expect from Feist, as if she alone has the power to bypass the bullshit and unlock profound truths. This nobility was tested last year when she embarked on a tour with Arcade Fire days after that band’s leader, Win Butler, was accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women, which he has denied. After a couple of uncomfortable sets, she walked away. “The last two nights on stage, my songs made this decision for me,” she wrote in a statement. “Hearing them through this lens was incongruous with what I’ve worked to clarify for myself through my whole career. I’ve always written songs to name my own subtle difficulties, aspire to my best self and claim responsibility when I need to. And I’m claiming my responsibility now and going home.” For all that she contains, Feist’s song of self does not waver.
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