“Fear … fearless … oh fear … fearlessness,” Leslie Feist sings in “Forever Before,” from her new album, “Multitudes.” She overdubs herself into a whispery choir while distortion looms behind her:tranquillity shadowed by disquiet.
In “Forever Before,” Feist, 47, contemplates a new beginning and a lifelong commitment: “What’s gotta end for forever to begin,” she sings. That commitment is the one she made when she adopted a daughter, Tihui, in 2019. “She’s sleeping right over there,” the song concludes. It’s one of the album’s many, sometimes fleeting, moments of reassurance in dire times.
In the folky, calypso-tinged “The Redwing,” Feist offers a kind of credo for the album: that both song and birdsong, direct from nature, are glimpses of truth. And in “Song for Sad Friends,” which ends the album, Feist assures those friends that she would never condescend to tell them not to be sad. “Things are bad my friends,” she agrees; she’s glad they are so perceptive. But that realization doesn’t have to be paralyzing. “Holding out but not holding in,” she sings in multipart studio harmony, “And it’s from here, we can really begin.”
“Multitudes” is Feist’s sixth studio album, and it embraces both delicacy and impact. It’s at once her most intimate-sounding and her most ambitious set of songs. Many of the tracks are hushed, close-miked ballads that can verge on ASMR — which happens to be ideal for Feist’s tremulous, nearly weightless voice, often accompanied only by a nylon-strung acoustic guitar, sometimes completely a cappella. The homebound, small-scale sound of pandemic-era songwriting and the duties of a new parent may both have been factors in the sound of “Multitudes.”
The album’s complex production — by Feist and her manager, Robbie Lackritz — can and does summon backing vocals, string ensembles, woodwinds or subtle electronics at will; there’s a lot of studio surrealism in the mixes. Yet transparency reigns, real or virtual.
“Multitudes” doesn’t stick to lullabies. Every so often — beginning with “In Lightning,” the album’s stomping, swerving opening track, which celebrates the power of nature — the music erupts, loud and percussive and willful. At one point, “In Lightning” turns into a warped quasi-Celtic folk dance, a euphoric digression.
“I Took All of My Rings Off” — a mystical fantasy of geometry, creation and self-discovery — transforms itself from acoustic parlor music into cavernous electronica. And in “Borrow Trouble,” which musters pounding drums and a sawing string arrangement over two chugging chords that hint at David Bowie’s “Heroes,” Feist unleashes full-fledged, totally unexpected screams — “Trouble! Trouble!” Yet at the same time she vows, in sweet multitracked harmonies, that “I’ll take all of it that you’ve got to give.” What could be more benevolent — or divided?
Feist has never rushed her album releases. Each one embodies both its own sonic realm and a personal turning point. Her previous album, “Pleasure,” released in 2017, was a deliberately raw, hissy, lo-fi snapshot of the messy aftermath of a breakup. “Multitudes,” six years later, is from a more refined realm: poised and pristine, thoughtful and rigorous, meticulously considered yet often mysterious.
In her latest songs, Feist is, once again, rethinking what love means. She quietly muses over the limits and possibilities of human connection in “Love Who We Are Meant To” and “Hiding Out in the Open.” Then she extends love to encompass universal female solidarity in “Of Womankind,” an elaborate choral fantasia. The song juxtaposes a benign, swaying refrain — “Be higher mind, be of womankind” — with some women’s everyday realities like “Hugging pepper spray at night/We check under our cars.”
On the new album, Feist also grapples with memories, contemplates mortality and wonders about the future of the planet her daughter will inhabit. All of those themes converge in “Become the Earth.” It begins as a modest waltz — acoustic guitar, pizzicato cello — as Feist lilts about the fact of death, that eventually, “we all become the earth.” Midway through, she overdubs her voice into a cappella harmonies, singing about “dust into dust as material must” but also about plastics pollution. She layers chorale on overlapping chorale; she wishes for someone to “stay loving me” while she thinks about absolute endings.
Empathy, longing, compassion, faith, acceptance and uncertainty make a gorgeous blend. In that song and across the album, Feist summons all of them, carefully and with preternatural grace.