Cate Le Bon truly cannot stop creating. Since her last album, 2016’s Crab Day, she produced Deerhunter’s latest album and continued her fruitful collaborative partnership with Tim Presley as Drinks, but she also disappeared for a bit, even if it might not seem like it from an outsider’s perspective. A couple years ago, when making music started to feel staid and stale, Le Bon decamped to a house in the Lake District of Cumbria, England and enrolled in an intensive year-long furniture-making course. By night, she played the piano, singing songs into the twilight hours that would eventually turn into her fifth full-length album, Reward, but by day she kept busy learning how to construct tables and chairs.
Le Bon’s preternatural musical talents seem a natural fit for this new artistic endeavor. Her songs have always been a bit like abstract architecture: rigidity applied to a world that feels devoid of order and meaning. Up to this point, the Welsh avant-pop weirdo’s music has been characterized by irregular angles — hard guitar lines and clipped phrases and knotted tension — but Reward is her softest work yet. Directing her creative drive to a different medium seems to have unlocked something entirely new.
With school taking up the majority of her time, Le Bon had little opportunity to over-intellectualize the music that she was making. Le Bon’s older albums are bold achievements, but they’re often fussy and demanding; Reward is looser and more inviting. In her downtime, she says she listened to music that was “instantaneous and joyful”: David Bowie, Kate Bush, Pharoah Sanders, Prince. That immediacy clearly rubbed off on her because Reward goes down smooth, languidly hypnotic like a meditative zen state. It’s starkly beautiful, with a patience that was no doubt derived from the long, arduous hours she spent making furniture.
Le Bon wrote the songs for this album on the piano, as opposed to her trusty guitar. Those original compositions have naturally expanded, blossomed into loopy sax grooves and withering sighs, but they retain that initial sense of privacy: created while hunched over, whispers into the dead of night. The album was recorded after Le Bon completed her program, with frequent collaborators — saxophonist Stephen Black (Sweet Baboo), drummer Stella Mozgawa (Warpaint), guitarists Huw Evans and Josh Klinghoffer (Red Hot Chili Peppers) — cycling in and out of studios spread out across California in picturesque locales including one house overlooking the ocean and another surrounded by the vastness of the Joshua Tree desert. The arrangements frequently mirror where they were made, contemplatively cozy but also insurmountably lonely.
Reward often feels like a pull between solitude and isolation, two modes of being alone: one peaceful and the other absolutely terrifying. As she’s talked about in interviews, Le Bon went through a life-altering event while performing in Miami — left unexplained, but alluded to on the album’s opening track — which spurred her decision to hermit herself away from a year. It was likely a breakup, given that Reward is filled with heartache. It’s all about being sad and completely on your own. Le Bon talks of midnight pity baths and taking sad nudes alone in her room and feeling engulfed in remembrances of times past. “All the changing of the light is torture,” she sings. “Memories outdoing memories.” She often feels frayed at the edges, crackling from the lack of connection she feels on a daily basis, numbed by that time away from the world. On “Sad Nudes,” she muses, “The more you feel/ The more you lose.”
But during those moments of self-doubt and struggle, there’s a thread of persistence that runs throughout Reward. “I love you but you’re not here/ I love you but you’ve gone,” Le Bon sings on the album’s masterful first single “Daylight Matters,” which even in its central absence feels hopeful. Le Bon holds onto a sense of playfulness despite the loneliness. “Mother’s Mother’s Magazines” purrs and whirrs and traces the lineage of the women in her own life: her mother and grandmother and those beyond that, looking at how they’ve lived with their own pain and strife and survived. “Did not see the comedy of decline before,” Le Bon sings there, with a screwy and maniacal glee.
Perhaps the album’s towering achievement and defining song is “Magnificent Gestures,” which starts off in a feverish sweat and features backing vocals from Kurt Vile. “Magnificent gestures and I just feel low/ I don’t know why,” Le Bon sings. “The mood escapes me/ And I am writing it down,” like a dream that you’re trying to hold on to desperately, some grand sense of clarity that arrives in those waking seconds that dissipates without warning. It’s a masterpiece of surrealist songwriting, an example of the kind of magic that makes Le Bon such a singular talent. It sounds like the endless search to make sense of the world, a constant battle that she’s been fighting through her mangled creations — whether songs or furniture or whatever Le Bon chooses to do next — her entire career. With Reward, she’s the closest she’s ever gotten to winning.
Reward is out 5/24 via Mexican Summer.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Flying Lotus’ massive comeback album Flamagra.
• Steve Lacy’s woozy, long-awaited debut album Apollo XXI.
• pronoun’s explosively vibrant debut i’ll show you stronger.
• Sebadoh’s first new album in six years Act Surprised.
• YG’s latest West Coast rap collection 4REAL 4REAL.
• Black Mountain’s psychedelic riffer Destroyer.
• Slingshot Dakota’s sugary and theatrical Heavy Banding.
• The Glow’s post-LVL UP follow-up Am I.
• Marytrdöd’s crust-metal behemoth Hexhammaren.
• Earth’s monumental swirl Full Upon Her Burning Lips.
• Machinedrum & Jimmy Edgar’s debut album as J-E-T-S, ZOOPSA.
• Justin Townes Earle’s reflective The Saint Of Lost Causes.
• Honeyblood’s snarly, refined In Plain Sight.
• Morrissey’s covers album California Son.
• Hayden Thorpe of Wild Beasts’ new solo release Diviner.
• The Pure Sounds Of Michigan compilation.
• Middle Kids’ New Songs For Old Problems EP.