Across gardens, harbours, invisible towns and fountains that empty the world, Cate Le Bon’s sixth solo album charts out territories beyond the locked-down rooms of Reykjavik and Cardiff where it began life, beyond even the mercurial world outside of them. While certain records from this era will no doubt bear the mark of the zeitgeist more than others – Charli XCX’s ‘How I’m Feeling Now’, Sleaford Mods’ ‘Spare Ribs’ – ‘Pompeii’ will be better remembered as an excursion from the banal than a documentary of it.
Where 2019’s ‘Reward’ refined her usual repertoire of sax, drums, and sporadic droll into something a little more ornate, Le Bon’s latest feels lush and verdant, busied by wandering basslines and unexpected bursts of falsetto. Even when her poppiest outings to date, ‘Moderation’ and ‘Harbour’, sit alongside the more languid ‘French Boys’, all three feel gloriously decadent, dispatches from the same riviera joyride played out in different gears.
Playfulness and pleasure aren’t new to Le Bon’s palette, of course, but they may have been missed by an industry that frequently ignores those qualities in feminine art. The Welsh songwriter’s work has already attracted the triumvirate of lazy critical comparisons that all art-pop women must be awarded – Kate Bush, Bjork, Tori Amos – though in truth her new album owes far more to the late ‘80s chic of The Blue Nile, Japanese city pop, and particularly Talk Talk’s ‘The Colour of Spring’.
‘Pompeii’ joins that pantheon of exotic, occasionally surreal records, and at a time when everything feels either dreary or unsafe, it’s an extraordinary balm. Le Bon’s love of abstract lyrical flourishes (“I’ve pushed love through the hourglass / Did you see me putting pain in a stone?”), alongside the wonderfully unfussy production work between herself and longtime collaborator Samur Khouja, results in a musical and narrative terrain that feels as welcome as it does alien.
Besides, as Le Bon pointed out in a recent interview, absurdity has always been a lingua franca in times of pain and austerity, from dadaism to Cabaret Voltaire. “All my language is vulgar and true,” she sings on the album’s title track, and while the style presented here often feels closer to elegant and vague, Le Bon’s finest moments bypass rational analysis in favour of radiant gestures. We should welcome them during these colder days.
Words: Matthew Neale
- - -
- - -