Upon being introduced to Cate Le Bon, the first thing one notices is her voice, which is a delightful paradox: it’s commanding but also languid, soothing but sassy. This conflict can also be found in Le Bon’s songwriting. On Reward, Le Bon’s newest release, there is a kind of joyful melancholy throughout, with each song building to a crescendo that simultaneously calms and disquiets.
The collision between these disparate effects feels purposeful. About the album’s title, Le Bon noted “People hear the word ‘reward’ and they think that it’s a positive word… and to me it’s quite a sinister word in that it depends on the relationship between the giver and the receiver. I feel like it’s really indicative of the times we’re living in where words are used as slogans, and everything is slowly losing its meaning.”
This attitude is reflected in Le Bon’s lyrics, which are often inscrutable yet seem fiercely specific and personal. “And in the midnight pity bath, I found no towels,” she muses in “You Don’t Love Me” — a line which, thanks to its odd construction, seems nonsensical until the imagery becomes clear. On the other hand, “I love you but you’re not here” (“Daylight Matters”) is instantly relatable, which allows initially enigmatic verses to make heartbreaking sense: “When your lips read like stone / Mouthing the lines / Returning the air / And I’m never gonna feel them again.”
At times, Le Bon sings with such conviction that words aren’t even needed. Her vocalizing is as integral to the music as the lyrics. The peculiar scan of the line “I wanted to meet the man” (“Meet The Man”) ensures that the way Le Bon sings is as important as what she’s singing. The “ahh ahh ahh” in “Home To You” or the seemingly throwaway “eee” in “The Lights” bear as much emotional weight as any words.
Musically, too, Reward is well… rewarding. Take, for example, the long musical intro of “Miami,” with its anachronistic yet addictive saxophone or the rubbery bass of “Mother’s Mother’s Magazines” (both courtesy of Stephen Black). Whether melodically or vocally, songs change course frequently, resulting in a frisson that keeps the listener consistently entranced.
And while Le Bon’s musical style is very much her own, one can sense snippets of influence. “Daylight Matters” comes across like a stripped down Cocteau Twins, while “Here It Comes Again” has the bittersweet emotion of a deconstructed Smiths tune. Le Bon’s affected delivery in “Mother’s Mother’s Magazines” and “Magnificent Gestures” evoke early Sparks.
Le Bon’s year-long stint learning to make furniture seems to have contributed to the peculiar pleasures that Reward provides. In an interview with Huck, Le Bon said “I would tell you that these are a set of the most personal songs I’ve ever written and they’re still cloaked in ambiguity. But then the ambiguity is a means to connect to people anyway, people can attach their own meaning. Absurdity as a way to engage is more interesting to me than being direct.”
Reward may traffic in ambiguity and absurdity, but the feelings it evokes are genuine. At a time when authenticity is considered the ultimate musical currency, Cate Le Bon’s music is rich indeed.
Leslie Hatton (@popshifter) is a Fannibal, an animal lover, a music maven and a horror movie junkie. She created and managed Popshifter from 2007 – 2017, and also contributes to Biff Bam Pop, Diabolique Magazine, Everything Is Scary, Modern Horrors, Rue Morgue and more.