REVIEW: Cate Le Bon – Pompeii

This is a liminal record, whose sound and lyrics occupy a state somewhere between dreaming and waking, between looking back and looking forwards, and between making peace and giving in to confusion. It is the unresolved contradictions and clashes between these states that provide much of the creative spark and make this such an engaging record.

From the heavy breathing, ominous synths and jarring saxophone that kick off album opener ‘Dirt on the Bed’, a sense of the otherworldly is established. Whilst the music is retro in focus, firmly rooted in the sounds of the 70s, the songs resist the dayglo euphoria that contemporary artists often reach for when mining the sounds of that period. Instead, the tunes here are woozy, downbeat and often seemingly teetering on the edge of remaining in tune. Think Low-era Bowie, or Roxy Music at their most meditative and you won’t go far wrong. The latter comparison is one Le Bon even nods to in the lyrics of ‘Moderation’ with its reference to Mother of Pearl. These influences are all filtered through a dream pop aesthetic, echo and reverb crafting a delicate wall of sound.

Le Bon manages to find beauty and a kind of comfort in this sound, the oddness of it entrancing rather than distancing. Throughout, there is an insistent groove, which exerts a narcotic influence on the listener. The music washes over you with the comfort of a warm bath.

The lyrics similarly read like dispatches from a dream, snatches of images laced together with unanswered questions and reflective pondering. Her language is richly symbolic throughout, but the poetry of the words never reduces them to a dry, intellectual exercise. When, on ‘Pompeii’, she asks “Did you see me putting pain in a stone?”, her delivery is laden with the weariness that life exerts on you. ‘Wheel’, with its evocation of the challenges of being in love, opens with the image of its singer “buckled like a wheel”. That simile expertly tees up the brittle, emotionally vulnerable character whose experiences we then learn about. ‘Cry Me Old Trouble’ creates an almost painterly image with its description of the “peacock moon”.

Alongside these rich and precise images and sensory inputs, the sheer volume of questions creates the sense of a voice trying and failing to figure things out.

This gap between experiencing the world around us and understanding it, and the seeming impossibility of that second task, is key to the record. On ‘French Boys’, with its slouching bass line, Le Bon observes that she is “never going to understand it”, a theme that runs through the album as a whole. Throughout, she presents these snapshots of memories and emotions as a beguiling collage of experiences, rather than an overarching narrative over which she can exert any control or coherence.

Despite this lack of resolution, the album never gives in to despondency. Instead, it finds a kind of thrill in life as a series of fragmented and inscrutable sensory experiences. Whether intentionally or not, it puts forward a powerful argument for life’s worth being at this sensory level. The narrative coherence so firmly a part of the fictional lives we seen in books and films might not have been found, but nor is it really needed.

Words by Will Collins

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