Cate Le Bon: Pompeii

If the locked-in grooves propelling Pompeii’s otherworldly textures make these nine tracks feel like one, that’s in part because Le Bon wrote primarily on the bass, which sings across this record as anchor and harmonizer. The record’s silvery tone has a similar unifying effect, inspired, as it were, by a painting of Le Bon in the guise of a nun by Tim Presley. (The actual album cover is a photographic portrait replicating the painting, which Le Bon could not bear to commodify.) In interviews, Le Bon has described how she and co-producer Samur Khouja stared at the artwork’s striking color scheme (amber, olive, Yves Klein blue) to guide the assembly of their own synth palette—how dualities of light and dark, hope and fear, exist, for Le Bon, on the canvas. To further illuminate the beguiling divinity of Presley’s piece, Le Bon has cited a Rebecca Solnit essay on Virginia Woolf that reads: “Most people are afraid of the dark… many adults fear, above all, the darkness that is the unknown, the unseeable, the obscure.” But Solnit is quick to clarify that this is the same darkness “in which love is made, in which things merge, change, become enchanted….” The spacious, improvisatory energy of Pompeii often contains the feeling of searching through this night. Its tone could be called the enchanted unknown.

Le Bon’s pristinely askew songwriting has always felt suspended between the desire to be understood versus the freedom of remaining furtively unplaceable. But more than ever—alongside Pompeii’s swarming tapestries of sax, clarinet, and synth lines—the directness and relative vulnerability of her songwriting voices a longing to connect. “What you said was nice/When you said my heart broke a century,” Le Bon sings sleekly on “Harbour,” a typically slanted image that is still charged with emotion. On the immaculate “Moderation,” Le Bon directs us to “picture the party where you’re standing on a modern age,” like a mantra for getting out of one’s head and into the world. When she sings of catching “a plastic bouquet/down the aisle” on “French Boys,” and feeling so woefully out of place, her misfit spirit is alive in every jigsaw note. Le Bon’s singing and Stella Mozgawa’s drumming can make Pompeii’s nervy rhythms feel physical and anthemic, like the Talking Heads’, and the way Le Bon pushes her voice heavenly high or tugs it down like a riptide—“You know, I’m not cold by nature,” she croons on “Running Away”—makes the songs sound as if they are constantly expanding at the edges.

Updated: February 7, 2022 — 12:00 pm