Reading through advance notices pertaining to Feist’s third album, Metals, a newcomer would be forgiven for believing the fiction concocted therein. Early reviews paint the story as follows: aggressively Canadian singer-songwriter releases debut record, turns heads, and promptly sells out big-time, releasing a big, glamorous, iPod-shilling second record full of pop hooks and lyrics about rainbows and butterflies. Which brings us to Metals, Feist’s much-vaunted return to form after her positively Gaga-esque The Reminder.

Of course, that’s not the case. It’s true that Leslie Feist’s whimsical “1234” was in iPod commercials and a fluke pop hit, but the former Broken Social Scenester has never been particularly challenging; indeed, the singer’s first leftfield hit, “Mushaboom”, is just as ebullient and just as prone to being on the jukebox in Applebee’s restaurants the world over. And it’s true that Metals lacks the pop sensibility of “1234” or even “I Feel It All”, as far as Feist hits go, but that’s okay: it’s an agreeable step forward into full-on artistry and album crafting.

This never, to Feist’s credit, feels like a conscious decision. There’s nothing on Metals that strikes one as deliberately alienating; there’s nothing obtuse or tuneless here. Rather, Feist has crafted an album that feels distinctly like a female take on the Nick Cave or Calexico mythos, a record that trips through off-key dustbowl Americana without irony or cuteness. It’s not Murder Ballads, but the mood is decidedly minor-key, a bit dark and off-kilter. Opener “The Bad in Each Other” is a stunner – sounding fried by the summer sun and high off of peyote, Feist sings of mutual relationship woes over insistent bass drum and hand-claps, delicate acoustic-guitar figures and understated brass. It telegraphs the direction of Metals remarkably well: the insistent clatter of a lurching drum-beat, the muted swell of subtle trumpets, background vocals that pop out of the ether without warning, rich and layered harmonies, Feist’s echoing lilt stringing everything together with stirring tales of emotional dysfunction.

Lest you think that Feist has settled into a rut on Metals, worry not: the overarching musical themes of the record are unified, remarkably so in fact, but half of the fun is seeing what Feist is gonna throw into the stew. Whether it’s the stutter-step beat and saloon piano of “How Come You Never Go There” or the piercing male background vocals and ethereal harmonies of the glorious “A Commotion”, there are a ton of moving parts here. Feist never rests on her laurels – each melody and composition is unique, and nothing ever feels out of place.

If there’s any problem with Metals, it’s the manner in which it tapers off near the end. Which, to be clear, is merely a sequencing issue – the record seems front-loaded with all of its attention-grabbers, but leans towards the sleepy as it nears its close, the album’s final tracks uniformly slow and pretty. And the songs are positively lovely – “Cicadas and Gulls”, in particular, is a magnificent little acoustic number, little more than Feist’s multi-tracked harmonies and a lonely acoustic guitar – it’s just that, taken back to back, they give off the (false) impression of being, well, boring. That’s at first listen, however; over the course of several listens, each ballad takes its own unique shape, and there’s no doubting how tuneful and evocative each one is.

A minor hiccup for a largely accomplished album. If you’ve ever wondered what Nick Cave sounds like without the murder, what a feminine Tom Waits would sound like without the dementia, or what that Iron & Wine and Calexico collaboration would’ve sounded like expanded to a full-length, Feist’s Metals should prove satisfying. It’s a remarkably well-crafted, impeccably recorded song cycle; and Leslie Feist, the glue that ties it all together, makes a persuasive bid for female singer-songwriter royalty.

Grade: B+

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