Caragh Medlicott reviews Pompeii, the sixth album by Cate Le Bon, writing on its avant garde consideration of life and lockdown living.
Two years into the pandemic, and the topic of covid-themed art remains a tricky one. Some creators have opted for the comic, others for the wistful, and many for the gritty – yet audience reception to a matter that is, even now, too close for comfort has generally been mixed. Happily, a new and less direct tact is taken by Wales’ finest psychedelicist, Cate Le Bon, on her sixth album, Pompeii. An incandescent and sonically tumultuous record, its lyrical through-line may be preoccupied by contemplations arisen in lockdown, but Le Bon’s aptitude for abstraction renders it part-pandemic record part-introspective meditation on vulnerability more generally. Don’t be fooled, either, by its title. Far from scenes of explosive disaster or ashy sadness, Pompeii holds its nerve by never quite looking covid in the eye. Furnished with the poppiest of her art-pop concoctions to date, Pompeii employs Le Bon’s characteristic off-kilter horns and pristine vocals, yet – as a whole – manages to be at once trademark of her sound but still markedly new. Le Bon proving herself, once again, master of staying in character without ever succumbing to typecast.
Like many artists to have produced work in these strange times, Pompeii is not necessarily the record Le Bon had foreseen herself making. Ever the peripatetic – and following the self-imposed Cumbrian exile which produced her critically acclaimed fifth album, Reward – had the pandemic not hit, Le Bon’s inspiration might have been found in different landscapes altogether. Maybe in the red dust of her new home in California’s Mojave Desert. Or perhaps in Reykjavik, Iceland, where Le Bon was situated in early 2020 scheduled to produce for John Grant. It was a plan which quickly disintegrated when the first rumblings of the pandemic called expatriate collaborators back to their respective nations, with Le Bon soon making her own journey homeward to west Wales. Thus, the product of the pandemic is Pompeii. Entirely self-composed, its inception both sunned in the glorious weather of early lockdown at Le Bon’s family home and later hot housed while living at a friend’s place in Cardiff. During her time at the latter, Le Bon resided with partner and musician, Tim Presley, along with long-time co-producer, Samur Khouja. Le Bon has described this set up as “three people losing their minds in a terrace house”. And, while Pompeii doesn’t necessarily sound like the disintegration of three musical minds, the context of its creation does seem to have heightened its sense of wrinkled time (a sonic theme which, while hardly novel to Le Bon, is still brought into sharper focus here).
Written primarily on bass and paired with anthemic rhythm sections, there’s a harmonic strangeness to the slips of guitar and lopsided brass which winnow through drum patterns like wind rustling trees. In tempo, too, Pompeii is circuitous and swirling, loosening up and sprawling out – it gazes into the horizon only to coil back up with synth lines that lay testament to how strange a thing pop can be. Certainly, the effect isn’t dissimilar to the disjointed movement of time in lockdown. Opening track, ‘Dirt on the Bed’ is a subaqueous welcome to an introspection bred in isolation – pulsing synth and plangent sax contrast with an optimistic opening line: ‘Trust in love’. Like a bug in amber, this song preserves a transient moment so that it might be inspected and reinspected in future contexts. Le Bon’s lyrics, as inscrutable as ever, remain dense with feeling. Here she sings: ‘On repeat / Without a function / And no confession / Recycling air.’ The trick to Le Bon’s poeticism is so often its duality. Yes, this could be aptly applied to lockdown life, but might equally fit with the disempowerment felt in the face of other global disruptors: rising populism – the climate emergency.
Follow-up track, ‘Moderation’, reflects the indulgence many of us took solace in while holed up at home (‘moderation / I can’t have it / I don’t want it’). Its soundscape conjures the push and pull of trying to resist, as well as the delight of giving in. It is sonically propulsive but still lushly melodic with Le Bon’s vocals high and bright over jangly post-punk guitar. Still, there is something both broader and more specific going on here. This isn’t just about the more banal daily temptations, but also an acute self-examination of the insistent hunger for more which characterises Le Bon herself, and perhaps the artist’s temperament more generally.
In interviews, Le Bon has been open about the “fuck it” mantra which became crucial to the formation of Pompeii. It was, perhaps, a necessary denouncement while operating under both the liberation and fear which grows from existential anxieties. Titular track ‘Pompeii’ speaks to this, while – in typical style – avoiding directness. Bubbling with synthetic refrains and a locked in groove, it offers a ‘70s turn via Bowie’s Low with an affected vocal flourish. Lyrically, the poetics fall into the elated, rather than fearful, camp of “fuck it”: ‘Every fear that I have / I send it to Pompeii.’ With only nine tracks in total, Pompeii slips by like a hushed wave only to insist on new marvels on subsequent listens. The siren-esque ‘Harbour’ offers typically oblique images to temper its buttoned-up drum pattern (‘What you said was nice / When you said my heart broke a century’). Meanwhile, quietly romantic closing track ‘Wheel’ is almost sweet in its plodding yet baroque homage to love itself. Like a strange but beautiful botanical garden, this album is replete with glossy greens and cosmic purples. A flavour which never quite settles, Le Bon’s continual invention is only more applaudable because of the success which came before it.
At the foundation of Pompeii’s oneiric world is a bright simplicity. Its jigsaw of sounds provide a suitable metaphor for our beautiful and troubled world. Even when coloured in abstraction, the shared experience of the pandemic remains naturally resonant. Like any person stumbling through the darkness of the unknown, Le Bon’s hands occasionally meet something pleasurable; something disturbing. It is the decision to keep grasping around, anyway, which fills Pompeii with a curious sense of real humanity.
Pompeii by Cate Le Bon is available via Mexican Summer.
Caragh Medlicott is a Wales Arts Review Senior Editor.
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