Reminding / Remembering

Leslie Feist playing at The Fillmore, May 10th, 2017

Feist’s songs have quietly morphed a decade after ‘The Reminder’. What does it mean for a record to age?

By J. Ery Díaz

Longing ages differently than we do. If we define it as the gulf between our looking expectantly towards the sea and our faraway loved ones — or our ideas of them — the passing years seem to alter the quality of our original gaze. Maybe it’s just that looking at our past looking skews it either earth-shatteringly consequential or hilariously frivolous. Leslie Feist is a master of both ageless affectation and the unavoidable warping of emotion: her voice has always carried a precise longing encased in amber, but recently, it weathers songs with the transformative self-awareness of someone who knows how the shore has eroded.

During her San Francisco residency in early May, Feist revisited songs from her 2007 album, The Reminder, for the first time in years. They have mutated: with only a bassline and spare drumming, My Moon, My Man becomes darker, more weighted. The distortion in the guitar-driven I Feel It All now builds up to a crashing mess of sound. And, introducing the song that broadcast her to every coffee shop across the country, Feist demurred.

“For a few years, this song just went somewhere”, she said. “It went on a trip or backpacking through Europe or something. And when she came back, she was a little weathered, beaten and life-scarred with a janky smile on her face. And, like, essentially kind of grown up, so this is how she represented herself to me”. Now spare and lithe, 1234 had Feist rearranging neglected parts of the song into new refrains, new ways of singing along to memory. When she got to “Tell me that you love me more”, someone shouted “I love you more!” back.

“No one’s ever done that before”, she said, smiling.

It’s been 10 years since The Reminder came out on Polydor Records. At release, it proved formative to my high-school self, with the soft strings and the bell-like sonic space adorning another way forward than unbearable masculinity. Though it hasn’t accrued dust, my emotions light up in very different locations: occasionally I still find a new backlit alley that floors me in what was once an entirely minor track.

At 50 minutes, The Reminder is intimate and concise in a way that Feist’s infinitely spacious work with Broken Social Scene isn’t. Yet the album intensely suggests wide-open settings: seagulls and waves evoke contemplation in a driftwood-littered beach, the piano and xylophone arrangements often recall the lanterns in a nighttime city plaza. These theaters of longing are glistening, sometimes ethereal, always earthy. It’s as if every instrument were recorded in a permanently windy and downcast dimension.

My Moon, My Man’s coda records someone walking out of their house, shutting the door in a hurry. Accordingly, the rest of The Reminder always travels, never settling in a fixed spot for too long. Remember, for instance, how claps spur on the propulsive, bouncy edge of Sealion’s electric guitar solo. The album’s instrumentation takes us sightseeing through the physical and spatial contours of intimacy — yes, this sometimes means gliding through the bistro, but more often it jogs near the breaking point of relationships. The most heartbreaking lyrics in Intuition best abridge this kinetic restlessness: “A destination known / only by the one / whose fate is overgrown”.

Often, though, the steel guitars stop just enough for emotion to swell up and take up the entirety of a song. The empty silences in The Park heighten Feist’s crystalline delivery. At its beginning, Brandy Alexander is doubly heartrending thanks to the small voids between finger snaps. Ten years later, in 2017’s Pleasure, Feist would explore and mobilize these kinds of bare-bones backdrops to varying effect. Life may have rendered maximal instrumentation unproductive for her creative process, but The Reminder foreshadows the sonic scarcity of that project in its stillest moments.

Maybe the distance between sounds sifts out what really matters from what one remembers. Clad in a pink dress at the Fillmore, Feist carried the first half of Sealion with just her electric guitar and a whispery soprano. Afforded nothing else, it was the audience that clapped the rhythm section and provided backup vocals. The song metamorphosed, propelled by the public’s need to liken the skeleton remainder with the reminiscing of what once was. “So much past inside my present”, she once sung with wonder.

The Reminder, then, reveals that longing feeds off of and recreates distances both spatial and temporal. Not only just the gulf between our sea-bound lovers and our landed feet, but also the one between ourselves and our shadow versions created throughout the years. The destination may be clearer, but we will always look back and acknowledge them. “Old teenage hopes are alive at your door / left you with nothing but they want some more”. Ten years in, that may not be such a bad thing.

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