Review: Feist Counts Down to Heartache in Gorgeous ‘Metals’

The Canuck who broke through with an iTunes spot doesn’t have anything half as peppy as ‘1234’ this time around. But that’s no detriment to the year’s most haunting album

If you loved Feist’s breakout hit of a few years back, the jaunty “1234,” then you’ll love — or hate — her new album, “Metals,” which is basically an extended countdown to heartache.

Let’s just say that if any of this downcast music gets licensed by an ad agency, it’ll be for Abilify, not Apple.

But lest you get scared off prematurely, also be aware that “Metals” is probably the most gorgeous album you’ll hear in 2011.

More than on any of the Canadian singer/songwriter's previous three albums, Leslie Feist has alchemized her chamber pop into something so pretty, it hurts.

She doesn’t ladle the melancholia on so thick that the emotionally neutral among us won’t be able to appreciate its charms.

But if you haven’t recently been through a split, you might want to instigate one, just to establish the right clinical conditions to appreciate a breakup album this beauteous.

You’ll know whether it's for you from the opening song, “The Bad in Each Other.”

A heavy percussive stomp leads to a tough, Lindsey Buckingham-in-the-Appalachians guitar line as Feist sings about how she and her star-crossed lover “had the same feelings at opposite times.”

Soothing brass and strings settle in to salve the soul as Feist sings about how “a good man and a good woman bring out the worst in the other.”

Bitterness usually makes for better music than a lack of acrimony, but there’s something tough, not wimpy, about Feist’s fatalistic fair-mindedness.

If that opener was haunting, the word applies doubly to the second track, “Graveyard,” which has Feist taking a brief break from nursing romantic wounds to take up matters of mortality.

“Bring 'em all back to life!,” she and a group of women sing, almost as a spirited mantra, sounding like a children’s chorus making demands on God on behalf of all their dearly departed elders.

It’s a more impressionistic then overtly confessional collection of songs.

The gossamer “Caught a Long Wind” is a showcase for the jazz-like dexterity of Feist’s delicate soprano, with the sparest piano and strings underscoring the sense of post-flight disappointment as she laments, “I got to know the sky, but it didn’t know me.”

The single “How Come You Never Go There,” while still lulling, has a bit more swing, and considerably more jagged guitar edges. “You’re an instrumental tune,” she tells her incommunicative lover — and coming from such a gifted vocalist, that’s quite a jab.

Then again, if “Metals” were an all-instrumental album, it’d still be pretty marvelous.

The tracks were recorded live inside a house on the Northern California coast (you can look at the videos on her website for plenty of indoor and outdoor footage).

But the first reaction to the hard-to-pinpoint reverb may be to imagine the sessions were recorded inside a small church, a la Cowboy Junkies’ sonically revelatory “Trinity Sessions.” The sophistication of the arrangements suggests overdubbing, even as the magic of the in-the-room ambience tells you otherwise.

Feist has hedged in interviews about whether these tunes reflect trouble in the relationship with her boyfriend, Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew.

Should he be worried, if they’re still together? Probably, judging from the more direct and confrontational lines that occasionally pop up, like “When you comfort me, it doesn’t bring me comfort, actually” (ouch).

But that penultimate sentiment is followed by a concluding song titled “Get It Wrong, Get It Right,” which suggests a cycle to all these messes that doesn’t necessarily entail a complete exit.

The voice that launched a thousand iTunes spots surely won’t be shipping so many units this time. But any loss among the folks who Google songs in commercials is a gain for discerning fans who’ll find these low-key “Metals” even more precious.

Sometimes beauty is its own promo spot.