The ancient city of Pompeii has provided cultural inspiration for centuries. As far as pop music is concerned, Pink Floyd famously performed in the amphitheatre of the volcanic region in 1971 – and in one of those delicious ironies music can offer, Cate Le Bon also themes an album around the city. The two artists could not be much further apart.
Yet there is progressive writing from the Welsh songwriter here too. As you might expect, her approach is somewhat different to one of the world’s biggest bands, using the Pompeii name as a representation of the apocalyptic events in the world over the last two years, to which no musician has been wholly immune. The album was recorded in isolation with her regular collaborator Samur Khouja, and Le Bon played almost every instrument save drums and saxophone. She also spent a great deal of time in her increasingly familiar role as producer, perfecting the record’s resultant sound.
As with much of her work, the songs for Pompeii have lean textures – but they often blossom into songs rich in colour, and when they do the effect is mesmerising. The wall of sound closing out Cry Me Old Trouble is one such example, as is the spacious reverberation around the voice on Harbour.
Elsewhere the experience is something of a fever dream, especially on headphones, with some clever sonic placements. There is less of the immediate charm that can be found on some of Le Bon’s earlier work, with a dark core to the music, but there is a strong resolve and gripping intensity throughout.
The lyrics can be typically elusive, but create all sorts of intriguing images and stories. French Boys, for instance, “are making me wait, French boys in invisible towns.” The title track gives a call to arms. “Get dressed, you’re a mess, you’re a sight”, she proclaims. Later in the song, her thought processes are becoming more extreme. “Every fear that I have, I send it to Pompeii, now I’m running just to give it away.”
Moderation is a beautiful song, stripped back to the clear, unstinting vocals in the foreground, the studied guitar and bass – before you realise that far beyond there are the coos of a backing vocal, seemingly from another dimension. The experience is akin to being in the studio itself and hearing a distant voice outside.
Elsewhere on the album Le Bon presents a troubled state of mind, her vocals listless as though fighting the lethargy that came to us all at some point during the pandemic. The music responds in kind, trudging through treacle in Running Away. “I’m not cold by nature, but this could bring me to my knees”, she confides. Later she bemoans how “You can’t put your arms around it, it’s not there anymore”.
Pompeii is a restrained but powerful statement, into which Cate Le Bon has clearly invested a great deal. It will further enhance her reputation as a distinctive, no-frills artist with a unique style, and its thought provoking lyrics will take the listener in unexpected directions. Make sure you listen.