Cate Le Bon Turns Isolation into a Creative Eruption on 'Pompeii'

BY Alan RantaPublished Feb 1, 2022

Isolation can lead to brilliance or madness, occasionally both. Having moved north of bustling Helsinki to the quiet artist community of Lake Tuusula, Finnish composer Jean Sibelius spent a decade or so struggling to write his eighth symphony before eventually throwing it into his dining room fireplace to ease his troubled mind. Escaping a sense of entrenched mediocrity in North Carolina, Justin Vernon broke up with his girlfriend, holed up in his dad's Wisconsin hunting cabin, and emerged months later with Bon Iver's instantly acclaimed For Emma, Forever Ago.

Welsh singer-songwriter Cate Le Bon took the creative isolation approach to an extreme on this record. She literally sealed herself in the studio on Plantagenet Street in Cardiff, attempting to dissolve her ego, her sense of identity. Armed only with a bass guitar and her wits, she bore the weight of the world on her shoulders, and eventually emerged with the transcendent new experience we have before us, titled Pompeii.

All the usual suspects are here, though. Longtime collaborator Samur Khouja returned to mix and help produce alongside Le Bon. Stephen Black (Sweet Baboo) and Euan Hinshelwood (Younghusband) slid in their scintillating saxophone from Studiowz in rural Pembrokeshire, while Stella Mozgawa (Warpaint) sent her jazz-laced drumming up from her own quarantine at Golden Retriever Studio in Australia. They kept the team together while in seclusion, the best of both worlds.

Le Bon does pretty much everything else on the record. All the other percussion, guitars, synths and piano, all the songs and arrangements — that is her. She has forged herself into a conduit of musical creativity. As such, Pompeii is imbued with the same instantly recognizable presence that enraptured the world on her 2019 Mercury Prize-nominated fifth album, Reward.

Gently tilting the perspective towards the bright side of life, Pompeii notably features classic synths like the Yamaha DX7. Le Bon used the synth tones intentionally to touch on city pop, a loose style of breezy, funky Japanese yacht rock that peaked in the early '80s. She also channeled the meditative, spiritual aura of a painting by DRINKS collaborator Tim Presley that hung on the wall during recording. Presley's painting was appropriately remade with the likeness of Le Bon for Pompeii's own cover art.

The overall effect is ageless yet ephemeral music, nostalgic yet of the now. It captures that prevalent sense of quiet panic and the struggle to retain any sense of time and human connection that has been the default mode of human existence for nearly all of the 2020s to date.

On "Remembering Me," swirling synths, shimmering guitar whine and angelic vocals come together in one of the album's most additive hooks, like a futuristic Laurie Anderson jam with Eurythmics. The sleazy sax line and sci-fi steel drum sound in "French Boys" makes it sound like a downtrodden response to "West End Girls" by Pet Shop Boys, while the introspective tension and upbeat pluck of "Moderation" sounds like Kate Bush on a good day. Though its lyrics speak of elusive love, lethargic dream-pop ditty "Running Away" has a sax crescendo so sexy it evokes George Michael.

With its melodic focus on the bass and heady lyrical vision expressed through quirky pop-tinged aesthetics, the album is full of moments that feel effortless while being thoughtful. Le Bon's serious, surreal poetic illuminations interpret the profound heaviness of our age without being obvious or quaint about it, weighing existential dread with the comforting nature of finality. Altogether, Pompeii lands somewhere between Hejira-era Joni Mitchell and the solo work of Stereolab's Laetitia Sadier — rarified air where Le Bon undoubtedly belongs.
(Mexican Summer)

Latest Coverage