Welsh singer, songwriter, producer and multi-instrumentalist Cate Le Bon is the model of a very modern kind of musician. The kind of musician that’s hyper-collaborative, internationalist in approach, yet retains a local character. She doesn’t strain for the limelight but is continually ready to build towards lasting success. The kind that’s erudite in music across genres and decades and can reference it without it coming over as pastiche, for whom binary divisions between alternative and mainstream, conceptual and immediate are irrelevant.
It’s a kind of musician which makes the 20th-century straight-male-centred rock star model seem anachronistic and provides space for much more nuanced and/or individual identities – such as St Vincent, Julia Holter, Dave Okumu (whose work we showcased last month), and John Grant, whose last album Le Bon produced. And because this type of musician isn’t about making an instant splash then having to live up to it as in the traditional star model, they can mature and grow creatively as their lives progress. So it is with Le Bon: at 38 years old, six solo albums and several collaborative ones into her career, she is gloriously confident, operating in a space entirely of her own making, as an absolutely vital voice.
She’s also grown in sonic sophistication. This record has less spiky indie-rock than its predecessors, and less of their edgy Kurt Weill cabaret vibe too. But there’s a lot more 1980s in it – not the electropop and new wave 1980s tones she so accurately and lovingly crafted for John Grant’s record, but the expensive, expansive, prog-rock descended 1980s of Talk Talk, Kate Bush, Japan, Eurythmics, The Blue Nile. It’s a fantastic work of studio art, sounding like it took hundreds of hours of crafting. But, sometimes just under the surface, sometimes bubbling over, it has all the weirdness, archness and disjunctions of Le Bon’s earlier albums too.
Even just her Welsh accent takes it away from the familiar, adding a new tonal element to what could be a familiar sound. And from the very first song, “Dirt on the Bed”, there are odd bits of tuning and hiccups or staggers in the rhythms that are as disquieting as that song’s title. This happens throughout, whether it’s the sudden downward vocal register shift in “French Boys” or the drunken foot-dragging of the drums in the album closer “Wheel” – but what’s most impressive is that this doesn’t act like it’s counter to or disrupting the surface sheen.
Rather, it’s all part of the total expression. The songs, the vocals, the production, the referentiality, the glitches are all the materials from which Le Bon sculpts her whole vision. And that vision is at the same time deluxe and delirious, surreal and literary, and draws you in and in and in with each detail that you notice, without ever really giving away its secrets. This is a record you could live with for a long, long time and never get tired of.
Cover Credit: Giraffe Studios
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.