The maverick singer swaps Cardiff for LA to record her third album, and the results are wonderfully weird
“Los Angeles is a constellation of plastic,” wrote novelist Norman Mailer when describing the
so-called City Of Angels. So it’s no wonder alarm bells rang earlier this year when Welsh maverick Cate Le Bon swapped her home of Cardiff for the west coast of America. Since her 2009 debut ‘Me Oh My’, the singer’s records have been full of bizarre meditations on death and mortality, wrapped in strange flurries of experimental noise. It was easy to worry that being surrounded by wannabe film stars and sunshine would rid Le Bon of her idiosyncrasies.
But she hasn’t been sucked dry by LA. On the contrary, buggering off to new climes may be the finest decision she’s ever made. ‘Mug Museum’, her third full-length, is as wonderfully weird as any of its predecessors. And there’s now sparseness in her music, plus a cool, controlled confidence that showcases her knack for the surreal more than ever. Where 2012’s album and EP double-whammy of ‘CYRK’ and ‘CYRK II’ found Le Bon occasionally buried underneath the clutter, here you get the pared-down brilliance of ‘Are You With Me Now?’. It’s a sleepy-eyed little thing, with Le Bon’s voice slicing through the ramshackle ’60s-tinged guitars and occasional horn blasts as she sings, “It’s not unusual, baby/To feel a shadow in kind” like Dusty Springfield humming a lullaby. At the opposite end of the spectrum is ‘Mirror Me’, an eerie organ drone that finds Le Bon channelling the spirit of some soul trapped in a heartbroken House Of Horror as she shivers, “Trickle down my skeleton like hunks of honeycomb”.
In part, roping in a new cast of collaborators to work on the album – from Joanna Newsom cohort Noah Georgeson to White Fence drummer Nick Murray – has helped Le Bon nail the pared-down purr of ‘Mug Museum’. Both the discordant, clank-heavy lament of ‘Cuckoo Through The Walls’ and the rugged, almost punk thrash of ‘Wild’ have a sophisticated simplicity missing from her previous work. But every song is stamped with her fingerprints, too. Opener ‘I Can’t Help You’ comes on like a rustic, starry-eyed Television, with its smudged psych guitar. And then there’s her brilliantly bonkers kiss-off as she explains how a difficult relationship has taken its toll: “Time took up my time… Bent me like elbows/Beat me like egg yolks”. ‘Sisters’ sees her deal with the fallout from the death of her maternal grandmother as she flits between past and present. It’s a dizzy, helter-skelter chug in which she relives old memories of serenading her Auntie Rita with Beatles songs on car journeys and realising she’s got to become a role model for her nieces now, sounding defiant as she sings, “I know well this space I fill/I know the drill… I hold the baton”.
Most impressive of all is the soft and delicate ‘I Think I Knew’, a duet with Perfume Genius’ Mike Hardreas in which Le Bon’s Nico-ish voice sounds wistfully lost as she rues “there’s no talking to him” while he stews about “doubt creeping in like sickly dogs”. The pair seem lost in a Neil Young-like fug of folky uncertainty. It’s telling on this song that even when Le Bon is sharing the limelight, it’s she who effortlessly takes centre stage. Many people head to Hollywood in search of the spotlight. With ‘Mug Museum’, Cate Le Bon has pulled off something far trickier: she’s demanded that the spotlight come to her.