In the perfect vision of hindsight, it may have been a bad idea for Cate Le Bon to sequester herself in a Cumbrian cottage to write Reward. That self-imposed seclusion in 2019 proved fruitful, producing an album our reviewer called a “stunning shedding of skins”. Had Le Bon known she’d be isolated once again—this time not by choice—she might have done things differently.
Nevertheless, the Welsh musician and producer used the unfortunate second retreat to write and record Pompeii, her sixth full-length release. All of the songs were written by Le Bon, primarily on bass, and she played nearly all of the other instruments. She recorded the album with long-term collaborator and co-producer Samur Khouja in Cardiff, Wales, while the reeds were played remotely by Euan Hinshelwood and Stephen Black. And in a method increasingly common in the pandemic, Stella Mozgawa’s drum tracks were dispatched all the way from Australia.
Pompeii is a disorienting record, one wholly appropriate for our time. The lead-off track, “Dirt on the Bed”, opens with a slow marching tone, one that sounds like a prisoner knocking on the hollow bars of a cell. The beat plods insistently underneath a pendulum swing of synths and a warbled, underwater bass. When Le Bon sings, “Sound doesn’t go away / In habitual silence”, you feel the futility in your bones.
“Moderation” provides some levity after the dirge of the opening track. The song stands out for its conventional structure, catchy melody, and wryly humous lyrics. Le Bon’s syncopated bass grounds the rhythm section and keeps the music humming along. The chorus provides an ironic rallying cry for these trying times: “Moderation – I can’t stand it / I don’t want it.” It’s the closest thing to a sing-along Le Bon has written.
The title track calls back to another Pompeii-themed song, Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Cities in Dust”. Le Bon writes of “cities built on monumental rage”, but her laconic speak-singing sounds resigned. It’s as if, unlike those ancient souls lost to a volcano, we can see the catastrophe coming but remain powerless to prevent it. One can’t help think of climate change as this millennium’s Vesuvius. The slow disintegration at the end of the song mirrors that sentiment.
“Wheel” is in 4/4 time, but its stress on the third beat makes it feel like a woozy waltz. A simple, relaxed melody dissolves into Le Bon’s trademark dissonance at the end, with one instrument bleeding into another, into another stacked atop even more.
The lyrics on Pompeii are generally abstract and frequently inscrutable. They take unexpected turns, building to a climax but never resolving. The album’s press release explains that Le Bon’s narratives “favor slippage away from meaning”. That’s one way to put it. Not much on the album is lyrically straightforward, which can be attributed to a year alone as much as an intentional turning away from specificity.
Le Bon’s compositions complement the abstraction of the lyrics, and the arrangements are just as multidimensional. Glimpses of 1980s-era Roxy Music or Bowie in Berlin give way seamlessly to infectious J-Pop bass lines underneath slithering guitars. Sometimes the production is sparse, sounding like early 1980s DIY. Other times it’s lush and orchestral, employing a pastiche of percussion and atmospheric synths while remaining decidedly avant-garde.
Pompeii is without a doubt an evolution in Le Bon’s musicianship and production. With its multi-layered arrangements and art-rock leanings, it’s miles away from the freaky folk of Me Oh My or Cyrk. But there were times I felt adrift in abstraction and wished for a simple rhyming couplet to ground me. I can hardly fault any artist for wanting to remake and challenge themselves, however, and Cate Le Bon does that successfully with Pompeii. On the penultimate track, “Remembering Me”, she sings: “In the classical rewrite / I wore the heat like / A hundred birthday cakes / Under one sun.” If “wearing heat” is anything like letting your freak flag fly, then, by all means, shine on.