The immediate zeitgeist of the world we live in—the lockdowns, mask mandates, social distancing and a new proximity to everyone virtually—has changed how we make our art, how we are tasked with articulating our reactions to each day’s smothering talking points. But Cate Le Bon’s argot, even amid COVID chaos, has remained eclectic and intoxicated by her influences, yet still completely magnetic and original in presentation. She’s a slick thinker and an even more ingenious composer. Jeff Tweedy once said of her arrangements: “It’s really rare for people to have a specific sound anymore, but I can always tell when it’s [Le Bon] playing guitar. Whenever I try to figure out her guitar parts, they’re way harder than they sound.” She’s no stranger to making tunes complicated enough to garner fits of highbrow praise; her music reeks of curiosity, and is an ornate blend of terror and elegance.
Le Bon’s 2019 LP—and first release through Mexican Summer—Reward contained a woozy flair that let her filter kindred devotions to Kate Bush and Bjork through a love language of existentialism and surrealism. Before that, she produced Deerhunter’s Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? and helped develop the band’s pop exploration through her ongoing creative partnership with frontman Bradford Cox, with whom she released Myths 004 that same year.
Le Bon’s been called an absurdist—a weirdo, an alien—because her music is industrial and her songwriting is a product of deliberate philosophical interrogation in an era of impatient desire for commodified answers. She works among envelope-pushers like black midi and The Spirit of the Beehive, acts existing on a margin where technical skill and inventive, experimental visions intersect. She’s not quite as singer/songwriter-oriented as Weyes Blood; her electronic compositions aren’t droney or balmy like Ellen Arkbro’s; she’s a Dadaist at heart, an active practitioner of purposefully off-kilter soundscapes and contrarian responses to traditional art of the era. But on Pompeii, Le Bon completely ruptures the mold, using the record to divorce herself from the current subculture of flashy 1980s new wave ripoffs by tackling similar themes of religious affection, but through a subdued, meticulous approach.
The LP’s tonal landscape derives from Japanese city pop, Depeche Mode synths, jazz percussion and the Dada bleakness of Cabaret Voltaire. Stella Mozgawa, a frequent collaborator of Le Bon, Courtney Barnett and Kurt Vile, brings patient percussion to the compositions; Stephen Black’s saxophone sounds like a glossy, beautiful earthquake. Samur Khouja’s production energizes Le Bon to lean far into a paradox: ancient texts germinating into contemporary lyricism.
Le Bon wrote Reward while in architecture school, and, again, lends that type of mathematical precision to the songs on Pompeii—the jangly, glittering guitars are as intentional as the sparse, quiet lulls. The language is danceable, yet poetic (“I’ve buckled like a wheel / Sucked the life from god’s routine,” “Cry me old trouble / I like the weight,” “Got an ugly wait for morning papers / Sipping wine through a telescope”), often flashing Le Bon’s clever juxtaposition of AP English establishment texts and post-punk’s rejection of traditionalism. The album is an avant-garde manifestation of what she’s always done best: songs that are layered with immense depth, wonder and mythology, while showcasing a voice that’s sometimes ethereal and elastic, and sometimes brined in a unique, low-register solemnity.
Lyrically, Pompeii is idiosyncratic, hilarious and charming. Buoyant language has long been a trademark of Le Bon’s discography, as she fixates on arriving to each song with a unique colloquialism in tow. “In the classical rewrite / I wore the heat like / A hundred birthday cakes / Under one sun,” Le Bon sings, about the claustrophobic territory of reimagining yourself, on “Remembering Me”; the mountainous guitars on the emo lament of “French Boys” give the line “I caught / A plastic bouquet / Down the aisle / With a sad sashay” a jubilant sense of finesse; “Outside, the air is cool enough to make me sweat / Under a peacock moon / The spoon gets passed around” is her declaration of communion and hopeful days on “Cry Me Old Trouble.”
On “Running Away,” Le Bon sings, “The fountain that empties the world / Too beautiful to hold,” and during “Dirt On The Bed,” she plainly states, “Sound doesn’t go away / In habitual silence / It reinvents the surface / Of everything you touch”—and that is the dichotomy of Le Bon’s philosophy, a balance between parts of the world we’ll never see and the parts we actively watch evolve. It parallels the world in which Pompeii exists, which is a much more complicated and apocalyptic landscape than the one Reward entered into—but her timeless imagery, when placed atop methodical instrumentals, still projects an urgent, modernized narrative of mortality and loneliness.
But the centerpiece of the LP is “Moderation,” a soulful, Avalon-esque undertaking about our habits, whether in romance or life in general. Le Bon’s bass lines converse with her bedroom-pop guitar quivers—it’s like watching someone leaning into the tenacity of a Joe Jackson groove with the anonymity of Noel Redding’s complementary style. “I get by pushing poets aside / ‘Cause they can’t beat the Mother of Pearl / I quit the earth, I’m out of my mind,” she sings in a lush falsetto. There’s a specific nod here to the sounds and songs on Roxy Music’s final album, an obvious blueprint for how Le Bon approached her Pompeii arrangements.
In her 1930 book Street Haunting, Virginia Woolf spoke of an all-seeing-eye and what perceptions are unlocked when the shells concealing our souls are destroyed. Nearly a century later, Cate Le Bon is also ditching the comforts of good footing for magnified awareness. Her brand of absurdism, once loose and surreal, is now a familiar excavation of isolation and heartache. On Pompeii, Le Bon is direct and poignant, honing in on a polished sound while using classical, tragic influences to help her make sense of the urgent, unfurling present.
Matt Mitchell is a writer living in Columbus, Ohio. His writing can be found now, or soon, in Pitchfork, Bandcamp, Paste, LitHub and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @matt_mitchell48.