Album Review: Cate Le Bon - 'Pompeii'

8 February 2022 | 1:59 pm | Roshan Clerke

"Eternity abides in each moment; the wisdom Le Bon offers is centuries old."

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Cate Le Bon has been a patron saint for idiosyncrasy in the indie rock world for some time, but it seems that she’s now ready to officially don the habit and wimple. With six studio albums to her name, and following up an acclaimed preceding album, 2019’s Reward, the Welsh singer, songwriter, producer and musician is no stranger to the metaphysical. Like the English anchoress Julian of Norwich, whose Middle-Ages mysticism presented a revelation of divine love that was the inheritance of all, Le Bon is a reclusive and enigmatic figure. 

Recording during lockdown in an old friend’s house in Cardiff, Wales, where she had once stayed before, has at least partly inspired the focus here on ontological themes of memory, legacy, and impermanence. Haunted by the thought of her past self and its unconscious cohabitation within her present self, she sings of instinctively reaching for light switches on the walls of dark rooms (Dirt Bed) and of wondering at the familiarity of a lover despite the passage of time (Harbour). The intangibility of the past and the materiality of artifacts that persist to represent it seems to be the subject of Remembering Me

This idea of habitation, of an indeterminable presence inexplicably held within a form, is central to the record. It begins at a language level; within Le Bon’s songwriting, the polysemic nature of the word ‘habit’ becomes continually teased into many different semantic variations as she plays with the English language in her near-inscrutable fashion. “I was in trouble with a habit of years,” she sings on Moderation, suggesting ageing, yes, but also that her existence in linear time is simply a benign addiction she’s been trying to break.

It is through the flesh though, rather than words, that ambivalent embodiment is invoked most viscerally. Le Bon’s distinctive singing often sinks from a soaring Kate Bush-adjacent falsetto down to a deadpan, abject conclusion. Much of Pompeii exists in this disorientating, uneasy state of being, sonorous saxophone sounds wailing like stranded sirens. 

Le Bon’s polarising fondness for displacement can perhaps best be understood through a quote from French philosopher Gaston Bachelard,  who she’s cited as an inspiration for the album: “It is better to live in a state of impermanence than in one of finality.” Her yearning for liminal spaces is explicitly articulated in The Wheel. “I’d take you back to school / and teach you right,” she sings, before mournfully adding, “but it takes more time than you’d tender”. Still, she tries to inspire a perpetually open state of heart and mind: the first lyrics of this album are “Trust in love” (Dirt On The Bed) and the final word is “Wait” (The Wheel). Eternity abides in each moment; the wisdom Le Bon offers is centuries old. 

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