Tuesday, February 21, 2012
Feist: The Reminder (2007)
What business do I have talking about my boring personal life in the context of this music blog? None, but this post is the way it is because I don't know any other way to approach The Reminder, and in any case perhaps it's an opportunity to get an unusually full sense of the evolving utility of a piece of music that may or may not have some grand artistic depth but certainly falls in, defines, articulates particular aspects of its time as I lived it. It's not as if I can really hear it for what it is anymore.
In I think August '07 I was sent a link to Leslie Feist performing her version of "Secret Heart" on Late Night. It's quite different from the recording on Let It Die, featuring searing guitar and a sort of noisy blast. I was taken with her playing more than anything. This was all back in the days of Napster, not the peer-to-peer service but the actual subscription-based online music distributor, which I was paying a monthly fee to use at the time and I sampled several Feist cuts and one month went to a chain store (it was a different time) and walked home with Let It Die, the next month with this one. I was excited about it, excited about knowing something about new music again. Along with an Old 97's compilation and Wincing the Night Away, it stayed on my card table for a while and I'd feel quite proud of myself for having Purchased Actual Music -- these would turn out to be some of the last compact discs I'd ever buy.
The card table, for what it's worth, is where this computer sits. We bought it the previous year. It wasn't warped then like it is now, and it wasn't really my idea to buy it; it was hers, and I don't really know what the primary motivator for that was but it ended up being a desk for my laptop that was not really a high-functioning laptop. I'm using the same laptop now, and it still isn't, only now more so. Back then it still had keys and was mobile enough that I could take it out to work and such; now I don't think it'll ever move again, the monitor falls off if you touch it the wrong way. But already then, it didn't hold a charge and stayed in this spot almost all the time. The Reminder was sitting near the left speaker when she came by after the breakup, just long enough for me to inform her of what I'd bought at the music shop because I was still in that sort of habit then and long enough for her to smile politely and say how much she hated Feist and wanted to punch or kill her, I think it was.
When I bought it, coincidentally, "My Moon My Man" was playing over the Best Buy loudspeaker with that obnoxious announcer. Feist was a major label figure now with a big audience share in this country as a result of the iPod ad with "1234" (the probable reason behind all that hatred up there). The pounding drooped-down piano and sensual thrust of it were something new, the video -- airport choreography -- resonated with me, and to some degree allowing myself to explore something separately and even come out and pronounce it sexy was a bit of liberation.
Here's what I initially wrote about The Reminder in 2007; I don't agree with all of it now:
When you get in the certain kind of mood, not quite depression but more like restlessness, when all chance of reconciliation with your past seems lost, when everything seems too complicated to handle, your only two options are to dance or to die. Feist's follow-up to LET IT DIE presents both options in equal time, in this case with a more obviously ragged edge than on the predecessor, although they are equally good. LET IT DIE was half covers, this one is all originals save the tradtional "Sealion." The difference between the two is fairly dramatic -- the vocals remain astonishingly inflected, nuanced, perfect -- but the dip in quality is only in the sense that THE REMINDER is longer and carries more opportunities to screw up. The screwups are there, no doubt; nothing bad, but probably one or two slow ones too many.
Confronted with a single like "My Moon My Man," what the hell do the slightly lackluster cuts count for? Men and women alike could melt at the propulsive piano but especially at Feist's request that you take it slow, take it easy on her; this could very well be the first pop song of the millennium that is actually too short. In general, these songs make their point in the sweetest and most succinct way they can. Each is a riff of sorts on an idea established on LET IT DIE. "So Sorry" is from the same camp as "Gatekeeper," but it stretches and builds in new ways; the vocals, probably the best on the album, expand on the song in all the right ways, and it's anguished and haunting but still strangely ingratiating. Even in the forceful drama of "I Feel It All" -- perfect Monday morning driving music -- the charm is always there. Bouncy and beautiful as the major international hit "1234" is, it's far from the highlight.
"Sealion" is the unlikely nutzoid rock move, "The Water" the best and most infectious slow-jam of the lot, "Honey Honey" sounds like a Prince b-side, and "Brandy Alexander" is the kind of sweetness that most people in the indie rock community would have been embarrassed to sincerely believe in ten years ago. Even the lesser songs are kind to the ears, and "The Park" is the only track that really wears out its welcome. One does miss the lounge and disco connotations of LET IT DIE on "One Evening" and "Inside & Out," that album seemingly having been less concerned with the hipster demographic. But it's just as possible that she's just versatile as fuck.
"The Limit to Your Love" is currently just about my favorite song in the world, sung with John Lennon-like intensity, witty in lyric and melody and arrangement all, and astonishingly seductive and sad. It's a microcosm for both this album and LET IT DIE. In conclusion, gaargh, this album is so fucking great. That's the best I can do.
Awesome album cover too, by the way.
Can't believe I said that about "Park," a sulking masterpiece. "Sealion" isn't the only nonoriginal and is a brutal, immersive calculation; Feist didn't write "1234" either. Its reputation and clout -- iPod commercial, Sesame Street cameo, Letterman performance, cheery video -- doesn't match up with its crushing sadness. Money can't buy you back the love that you had then. I do still believe "The Limit to Your Love" is her best song; soulful, resigned, dark, it almost mocks in its yearning. You can't even imagine how many strange strands of memories all this conjures up. That line in "1234" I'm around the side of the building at the grocery store I always go to, the part they've demolished now. "The Limit to Your Love" I'm in the lot at work waiting out the end of my lunch; I don't typically listen to music at lunch unless I'm in a pretty dour mood. I remember how enveloped I gradually felt by all the dramatic development in "Limit," and then that piano pound into the chorus, the narrow-eyed realization of the title.
The morning after the breakup, I took the disc into the car and "I Feel It All" was blaring obnoxiously as I hit the stoplights on the way to work after Labor Day weekend. The triumphant ringing and build on vocals helped me feel like I was driving away from more than home but also the life of the prior number of years I don't care to count, that I was driving into the future -- and in the meantime with "So Sorry" I could have some vision of tranquility in that peerlessly well-armed performance, my guard up all the way to the melancholic "Limit" and "1234" but all with the feeling that I was intact, that I could look to the future and feel it all. A year later and still in mourning for something or other I'd see a bland romcom trailer while seeing a movie by myself (of course) and "I Feel It All" underscored all the emotional climaxes and, in the mood then to take everything to its worst possible conclusion, I decided that the fact I'd ever experienced some sort of catharsis from this was laughable, that I was old. That I didn't really know anything about music at all and hadn't learned anything and my own emotional applications to it were an out-of-touch joke. That vision of tranqulity was tranqulity, Feist doesn't sing she sings, and yikes "Limit to Your Love" is pure WGNI call-in melodrama, "1234" a commercial. My entire self-constructed world deflated, a joke.
But a lot happened in between there, which explains some of that internal shift. There was someone in between, a whole relationship and a far healthier one to boot, happily a sign of a future well-adjustment and maturity that I'm glad to say has proven the path I've somehow set myself down -- my wanderings into introspective sadness are mostly by choice now and help me write nonsense like this, sometimes horrifyingly enough getting paid for it -- despite still not really knowing much of anything. The Reminder played while I had guacamole for the first time ever and it was also the first time I didn't listen alone, and "Past in Present" suddenly was clear, "Brandy Alexander" and "Honey Honey" with their groaning decadence. All the songs sounded different, like "Limit to Your Love" I seem to remember as just drunken, a pronouncement from some height that was really deceptively clear and unfogged, that you'd better not forget the crux of what you're singing about because there's a limit.
I've written before here, I think in regard to Galaxie 500, about the period in my life shortly after that, the spring, when I slept in the living room on a really terrible pullout couch with the screen on this thing dimmed and noisy, reading about early America and watching strange movies like Aguirre, the point being I was really on my own, my lifestyle was an insular strange thing that didn't make much sense outside of this odd construct of mine. I hadn't recovered from traveling, which I'd done earlier in the year alone, and something about being inside and carrying on any semblance of old routines really scared me, right down I guess to sleeping in my bed. The night I returned I turned the Fox station on really loud even though it was really bad sitcoms all night just because the silence was horrifying me, the bigness of the world suddenly proven. "Intuition" I'm sure I caught wisps of its horrible resignation before but I can really sense the dimness of the room -- I'd leave most of the lights out -- and smell the smells of the food I'd bring home and think about the regular silence of that world, it's vivid in a way that I don't typically find (perhaps because of my age at the time?) from the images I get out of music, especially at the closing Leonard Cohen-like "did I? did I?" chorus. The same goes for the noir curiosity "The Water," which recalls for me the experience of walking in this neighborhood quietly by myself, hoping to observe something and never seeing anything, wishing like crazy to be somewhere else. Once I took Let It Die out in my Discman -- my fucking Discman -- and found it so damned sad I couldn't finish it, but I had similar experiences at the time while attempting to clean this apartment to the tune of Yo La Tengo's Beat Your Ass and a Surfin' Sixties compilation, so I guess I was just sort of fucked up.
The heaviness of heart there reached what I now realize was its climax, I guess, about a year and a month after I bought The Reminder. I went to a wedding in the Midwest in late September 2008; on the way back to the airport, my friend and I stopped at a large book-music exchange in Kansas City. I bought a signed copy of an Audrey Nieffenger book for my mom; he bought The Reminder on CD, having only acquired it before as a download. He put it in as we drove onward, and that was one of the hardest things I've ever experienced. These are just instruments, just a voice, why can music do this to a person? The "I Feel It All" ringing out was too much again, "So Sorry" just hung me back to hopes of before, "The Park" was sadness so real that it populated, that gorgeous acoustic guitar and wordless gravity. Couldn't see, couldn't hear, in a daze when the lady at the airport counter told me I really needed to get my driver's license replaced and said I looked like one of the Jonas Brothers.
I wasn't there. All I could think was: the seasons have changed from present to past. There was a limit to your love; is there always a limit to love? Not for everyone, clearly; people were getting married, life was going on, and I had to talk myself into walking into doors -- not because of any event, not because of any personal deficiency or some Mr. Fixit problem I could attend to, but because everything was all too much and I needed help I wouldn't seek out, finally finding my own unorthodox things but don't do that to yourself, I beg you, please don't close yourself off more. I didn't understand depression, didn't take that seriously, thought it was all some tangible thing I could parse out and power through with words and closing off, sometimes in ways it was hard to repair later. So: Find some kind of a base and don't let a whole year, especially a year in which you do more fun and crazy things you ever had before, disappear under the weight of your own unwillingness to engage with the world. Otherwise you might get on a plane and not see or hear anything -- I have no memory of the flight home or the days after -- except that subtle picking in "Intuition" ringing in your head, how you might have changed it all for him, did I did I, money can't buy you back the love that you had then, there's so much past inside my present, and this is how my heart behaves.
That's when you (I) realize that probably by accident, this record has become its title. Through no fault of Leslie Feist's, she is keeping ghosts and demons alive for you any time you push the iTunes play button. Now you can go there when you want to because you're OK, but it's still what it says it is -- it's a visit to all that, for better or worse. It's like opening a box. Beautiful in a way, but dangerous and surprisingly powerful for this "adult contemporary claptrap" that plays in romcom movie trailers. So fascinating what we can wrap up in something, and how much our experiences can eclipse everything about a piece of art until those experiences are all we can hear in it any longer.