Since putting out her debut solo album ‘Me Oh My’ back in 2009, Cate Le Bon has set out to make the everyday sound strange and magical. Her breakthrough record ‘Mug Museum’ used spiky psych-pop to examine the vague, shifting shape a person’s memory leaves behind after death: “I forget the detail,” she sang on its title track, “but remember the warmth.”
Cranking up the honky-tonk, the surrealist ‘Crab Day’ compared love to a coat hanger atop dissonant post-punk (on ‘Love Is Not Love’), while 2019’s ‘Reward’ introduced cartoonish honks of saxophone and taking “sad nudes in my room”. Though her imagery always feels weird, and occasionally nonsensical, there’s also a sense of gravity anchoring them down to a deeper meaning. Her work often asks well-trodden artistic questions about love, fear and loss in playful and unfamiliar ways, and digging down to the core is satisfying: like completing a particularly tricky crossword.
The Welsh musician’s sixth solo album, ‘Pompeii’, is no exception. Le Bon’s own version of the Ancient Roman city – destroyed and buried by a volcanic eruption in AD 79 – is where she sends “every fear that I have”. Pushing “the poets aside” on the entangled indie rock guitars of ‘Moderation’, she recoils from mediocrity and restraint (”Moderation – I can’t stand it”) and across the record’s nine tracks, the artist often grapples with expressing herself clearly, via the “vulgar and true” language she’s built a legacy on.
‘Pompeii’ has a vaguely downcast quality, bringing to mind the lush but uneasy soundscapes of Talk Talk’s experimental breakthrough ‘The Colour of Spring’ and the eerie echo of Bowie’s ‘Station to Station’. Compared with her earlier work, it’s claustrophobic and melancholy; a product of its creation.
Though she’s usually based among the alien branches of Joshua Tree, California, Le Bon made this record while locked down in Cardiff with collaborator and co-producer Samur Khouja, and on the squalling ‘Dirt on the Bed’, the sheer familiarity feels heavy and cloying in the air. “On repeat, without a function, and no confession,” she sings, “recycling air”. Laden with sleazy squelches of synth, despair drips through ‘Running Away’: “I’m not cold by nature, but this could bring me to my knees / The fountain that empties the world – too beautiful to hold.”
Encasing the malaise and drudgery of the last two years and preserving them in dark grey ash, ‘Pompeii’ captures a distinct sense of isolation without explicitly spelling it out. There’s much to excavate here.
Release date: February 4
Release label: Mexican Summer