Album Review: Cate Le Bon – Pompeii

[Mexican Summer; 2022]

The brilliant sci-fi film Arrival depicts a woman learning an alien language that uses a series of circles, all imbued with intersectional meaning. Upon mastering this language, the character played by Amy Adams (spoiler alert) unlocks the power to experience her past, present, and future simultaneously. 

Wait, hold on. By now you might think: ‘Why the heck is this guy yammering on about Arrival when he’s supposed to be discussing the new Cate Le Bon record?’ For some peculiar reason the album in question, Pompeii, reminded me a little bit of Arrival’s cool synopsis. The Welsh-born artist/producer’s body of work has always had an alien quality to it, a sense of removal from conventional phenomena. Le Bon cultivates her right-brained imagination to paint with melody and words, while also indulging her more left-brained, methodical tendencies in crafting objects and furniture. In both these endeavors, Le Bon appears elusive and often otherworldly, always preoccupied with satiating her own jejune curiosity and oblivious to the prying eyes of others.

That innate curiosity became conducive to a nomadic lifestyle with her partner Tim Presley, having lived in artist stronghold Marfa, Texas, The Lake District, the French countryside, and now Joshua Tree National Park, California. Given their restless traveling patterns, Presley and Le Bon seem to have instinctively learned over time to trust the circumstances and environment to steer their long-cherished routines into a fresh direction. I reckon being an artist is often about setting interesting conditions to feel creatively fertile, and to enjoy the process at hand more so than the result.

Early in the writing process, Le Bon was already designing those conditions for Pompeii, except the COVID-shitstorm kept her from traveling to Norway or whatever other cool geographical location that could maybe inspire new, fruitful sonic impulses. Instead, she and Presley, along with co-producer Samur Khouja, were holed up in a more familiar place: the drizzly, pastoral Cardiff residence of her good friend Gruff Rhys. 

Creating here obviously spiraled Le Bon’s initial vision for Pompeii into a rather unforeseen, volatile direction. Feelings of nostalgia crept in: back in the 00s, she tended to the house when Rhys’ renowned outfit Super Furry Animals were on tour, and, upon returning there in 2020, she found out not many things between its walls were radically changed. Though earnest sentimentality has never been Le Bon’s forte, these retrograde feelings are still very palpable in the songs, albeit filtered through her signature absurdist wit. 

Going back to the weird alien language of Arrival: though the songs are fully-formed and quite hook-driven, Pompeii has a similarly disembodied, vaporous quality. Le Bon seems to go out her own way to recycle textures and instruments as if they are the only raw materials at hand. “Running Away”, for instance, sounds like a spectral apparition of David Bowie’s “Ashes To Ashes”. Though still leaning into surrealist abandon, you can tell that every song is tethered to a residue of very strong, cathartic emotions. As if holding two images of the same person against the light, on the funky “Remembering Me” Le Bon juxtaposes her past and present selves: In the remake of my life, I moved in straight lines / My hair was beautiful / My eyes were slow”. This particular line appears as if Le Bon’s entertaining herself on a what-if, had she allowed the outside world to tether and dictate her music more, and how this might have changed her.

Growing up in the Welsh countryside, she habitually chased down the spontaneous, which explains why her records never feel tied to a specific zeitgeist. The stubborn, gobbledygook escapism of DRINKS, Le Bon’s joint anti-folk project with Presley, for example, exults into this chaotic glee to the extreme. Pompeii, meanwhile, remains stationed in a strange purgatory, stumped between a warped, radiant nirvana and its maker’s own stark, unmoving reflection.

It’s quite poetic how Le Bon wrote the bulk of these songs on bass: representing a connective tissue or intermediary agent between various states. It’s impossible to single out just one song as well, because each line leaving her lips seems manifested from random thoughts, like a fluid cut-up method to unearth a pervading feeling or thought. “All my life in a sentiment /All my language is vulgar and true / I’ve pushed love through the hourglass / Did you see me putting pain in a stone?” she puzzles on the album’s ethereal title track. 

Furthermore, for an artist known for her sleight of hand and cryptic mystique, naming the album Pompeii strikes as refreshingly on-the-nose. I mean, the Biblical scene of Mount Vesuvius erupting and leaving a city in complete ruin? I dunno, but that’s not-so-subtle imagery akin to the climax of Arrival: your entire experience crumbles and converges into a single crystallized moment that unleashes like a torrent of pure, elemental feeling. In the process, this cataclysm creates a veneer of renewal, a beautifully retextured, abstract landscape untainted from its past iterations, eternally suspended to be admired and recaptured. Pompeii, with its sleek textures, chorus guitars, and Stella Mozgawa’s elegant pulse, mirrors this type of landscape to a tee.

And therein lies the strange sudden comfort, this unburdening from irrefutable, inevitable change. A big creative spark for writing the album was Le Bon first witnessing a painting by Presley depicting her as a nun, inexplicably moving her to a point where words seemed to serve no purpose. Judging from reading several articles, this strikes as an extremely intimate act of devotion and pure love that can’t really be measured, or replicated. This might explain why instead of using that image for the album art, she herself poses as an effigy of it: the moments that shape us most are often the most unseen. But this does feel like Le Bon’s own outré way of baring her soul through her art more than ever before.

Pompeii truly feels like a gesamtkunst rather than a collection of separate songs. The album reaffirms what makes Le Bon’s music such a useful prism to process thoughts and feelings that feel too immense to articulate within traditional means. I guess that’s the value of subjecting yourself to a piece of art in the first place. Even within the worst of times, it can help us exhume the best within ourselves