Cate Le Bon’s music has always been transportive, charming art-pop numbers that suggest secluded cabins in the mountains with an ever-blue sky, but with the occasional lightning flash to keep you on your toes. You’ll talk under the stars together for hours, and even if much of what she says goes over your head, the passion with which she talks about it keeps you invested. Le Bon’s sixth album, Pompeii, is another leap forward in terms of sound development and artistic growth, and quite possibly the most challenging release of her career to date.
Le Bon is the star attraction of her songs, her beautiful but unshowy vocals able to communicate sensitivity and absurdity. And the backing arrangements offer support without feeling like an afterthought. But where Pompeii differs is how closely-knit Le Bon and the rest of the instrumentation sound. It’s not a fusion of voice with production to the extent of HEY WHAT, but Le Bon sounds like she’s being pulled into her music to a new degree. An album entitled Pompeii with a portrait of a fist-clenching nun on the cover suggests some kind of metal album. It’s not quite there, but it’s also not just meandering in the safest reaches of art pop.
You might not find any blast beats or tremolo-picked solos on Pompeii, but Le Bon has her own way of creating and, occasionally, releasing tension, often by utilizing the element of surprise. Opener “Dirt on the Bed” initially feels like a logical continuation of Le Bon’s Reward, but its steady chamber pop backdrop becomes more intense and less tonal. Everything seemed in control, but the terror underneath has been revealed. And even if things aren’t always that off-kilter, there’s always the sense that things could take a turn. But Le Bon is shrewd enough to not just retrace her steps.
The songs here are full of ideas without overcrowding, and individual moments make you stand at attention without coming across as gimmicky. Take how the horns and layered vocals soar in tandem on “Moderation” or how the arrangement of closer “Wheel” starts off as sophisticated if a bit askew before corroding with cymbal crashes and buzzing guitar while Le Bon’s falsetto floats above it. She impresses not for the tools in her arsenal but for knowing when to use them. Pompeii is a strange album for strange times. But it’s not strange in a way that can be easily pinpointed. In the announcement, Le Bon addressed the normalized absurdity of attending to trash pickup schedules amidst our collective awareness of everything going awry in the world. There’s an underlying sense of desire to get out of this world but to not let go of what it’s provided to us. If the phrase “cosmic yé-yé” fills you with anticipation, get ready for “French Boys.” Le Bon’s lyrics also balance the familiar and the surreal with lines like “Sipping wine through a telescope.” The more things seem to clear up, the blurrier they become.
Reward was an excellent album, but it also represented a potential roadblock for Le Bon. She had locked down a sound but also risked falling into a rut as a result. Her authorship is unmissable on Pompeii, but a new book is being written, one with all of the charms and thrills of her past work and plenty of new ones. Even if you don’t understand all of them at first, you’ll appreciate the experience.
Pre-order Pompeii by Cate Le Bon HERE