Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: Cate Le Bon Pompeii

Mexican Summer
Mexican Summer

Everything sounds like it’s melting. The bass. The horns. The keyboards especially. It’s destabilizing, intriguing, invigorating. It sounds like the artiest, most idiosyncratic new wave hits of the 1980s reflected back in a funhouse mirror. It sounds like going through the looking glass. And it has never sounded better than it does on Pompeii.

The Welsh avant-pop artist Cate Le Bon has spent the past decade-plus refining this sound, riding a creative wave that included prolific collaborations with the likes of Bradford Cox and Tim Presley in addition to her ever-evolving solo discography. On Le Bon’s 2009 debut Me Oh My, she was a folksy singer-songwriter prone to post-punk outbursts and flights of whimsy. By 2019’s sublime Reward, she had shapeshifted her way to something prim and proper and colorful and surreal. There were obvious debts to stated influences like David Bowie and Kate Bush, but the album’s balance of stately presentation and hallucinatory flair was particular to Le Bon.

Pompeii, out this week, further elevates that style. The album comes with a loose conceptual framework: While wrestling with personal unease and the weight of religious guilt, Le Bon was trying to make songs that mimicked the “religious” sensibility of a painting by Presley, her partner in the band DRINKS. It’s a fitting conceit for an artist whose music already sounded like a trippy museum exhibit. I do not historically mean it kindly when I say an artist’s music is fit for a museum. Usually it’s a euphemism for boring, for inert, for slavish historical reenactment — but in this case it’s a compliment. Le Bon’s latest is high art spiked with an unpredictable liveliness. Her official bio for Pompeii says her songs are inspired by “antiquity, philosophy, architecture, and divinity’s modalities,” yet they’re far too playful to play out like an academic exercise.

Although Le Bon played almost everything on the album — guitars, synths, bass, piano, percussion — the contributions of others loom large. She co-produced the album with Samur Khouja, who formed a braintrust with Le Bon and longtime collaborator Josiah Steinbrick on Reward. Steinbrick, who had been a producer on every Le Bon release since 2013’s Mug Machine, is not credited this time, which suggests Khouja might be more in tune with Le Bon’s current wavelength. Also returning from Reward is Stella Mozgawa, the Warpaint member who has become an in-demand drummer for acts including Kurt Vile, Courtney Barnett, and Kim Gordon. Le Bon’s longtime collaborator Stephen Black is back to contribute to the album’s blur of saxophones and clarinets, with further sax action by Euan Hinshelwood. (“The grief is in the saxophones,” Le Bon has explained.)

The resulting music is woozy, wobbly, and mystifying yet somehow also sharp and purposeful. Powerfully quirky rhythms course beneath most of Pompeii‘s songs, while regal brass and woodwind melodies streak across the atmosphere. Le Bon’s bass parts consistently steal the show, flouncing their way across the sonic canvas with a carefree mischief that lends the music much of its levity. Droning synths balance out that comedy with a significant dose of drama. Every once in a while, a sound will emerge from within the dazzling array to seize the spotlight, like the avalanche of echo-laden guitar that eventually submerges “French Boys” or the sax blasts on “Running Away” that sound like “Sledgehammer” turning to taffy.

Le Bon sings these songs with a restrained passion, channeling abundant personality but rarely if ever forgoing her poise. She is not a performer who tends to cut loose, and her lyrics mirror the music’s compelling yet disorienting feel. Many of them are surprisingly direct while leaving just enough to the imagination: “Moderation/ I can’t have it/ I don’t want it/ I want to touch it” or “What you said was nice, when you said my face turned a memory/ What you said was nice, when you said my heart broke a century.” The single “Remembering Me” brings that deft touch to bear on vast concepts like regret and reinvention; its text could stand alone as an award-worthy poem, but then we’d have been robbed of its glam-era Eno-worthy strut.

At times I get the sense I’m hearing a regular person reflecting on relatable situations, but filtered through an aesthetic that feels alluringly alien. Le Bon has a way with memorable imagery, whether singing about being “face down in heirlooms” or “sipping wine through a telescope.” Then there are the passages that could work as miniature manifestos for Le Bon’s peculiar approach, the ones that read like philosophical statements. “All my life in a sentiment/ All my language is vulgar and true,” she sings on the title track, before continuing obliquely, “I’ve pushed love through the hourglass/ Did you see me putting pain in a stone?” Or what about this line from “Dirt On The Bed,” Pompeii‘s enthralling, understated album opener: “Sound doesn’t go away/ In habitual silence/ It reinvents the surface/ Of everything you touch.” Like so much about Pompeii, these lines are striking enough to elicit an instant reaction but off-kilter enough to leave you pondering for days.

Pompeii is out 2/4 on Mexican Summer.

Other albums of note out this week:

• Mitski’s Laurel Hell
• Saba’s Few Good Things
• Black Country, New Road’s Ants From Up There
• Animal Collective’s Time Skiffs
• Rolo Tomassi’s Where Myth Becomes Memory
• 2 Chainz’s Dope Don’t Sell Itself
• Korn’s Requiem
• A Place To Bury Strangers’ See Through You
• The Districts’ Great American Painting
• Urge Overkill’s Oui
• Hippo Campus’ LP3
• Bastille’s Give Me The Future
• Emperor X’s The Lakes Of Zones B And C
• The Jazz Butcher’s The Highest In The Land
• MASS WORSHIP’s Portal Tombs
• yeule’s glitch princess
• Wild Rivers’ Sidelines
• BJ Thomas’ posthumous In Remembrance – Love Songs & Lost Treasures
• Marissa Nadler’s The Wrath Of The Clouds EP

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