If you want to fully, truly experience the magic of Cate Le Bon‘s new record, Reward, you’ll need to start in a certain place. Listen to her most recent solo LP, Crab Day, and soak in all of the Technicolor splendour, all of the jagged guitars, all of the whimsical melodrama. Then you should do the following:
Picture yourself in a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies.
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly. Unsurprisingly, given the rather particular setting, it’s a girl with kaleidoscope eyes. You try to tell her that you’re desperate to hear her new album, because you know it’ll be her best record yet. Tell her she’s been releasing a steady stream of great-to-genius albums as a solo artist, and with Tim Presley as DRINKS, and now is the time (you imagine) that she will blow them all out of the water. She’s due a magnum opus. Her old songs are like cellophane flowers of yellow and green towering over your head, and you both look at them together as she listens to you speak.
The further you sail down the river, the more of a chill there is in the air. The flowers overhead, once vibrant, are now losing their colour, like an image stripped of all colour saturation. The water all around you, though you can’t touch it, seems to be getting cooler, almost crystalline. Your breath condenses in front of your eyes. The girl’s kaleidoscope eyes now only show black and white stars, revolving slowly against each other, never touching.
The girl turns to you, as the crystal world disintegrates. You ask her what is going on.
“This ain’t rock ‘n’ roll,” she mutters, “this is genocide.”
Thus begins your journey with the new Cate Le Bon record. Firstly, you have to know that it absolutely stinks of David Bowie, from the first note to the last. The moods, the sounds, the ‘feel’ of the entire thing serve not as an homage or pastiche, but rather a continuation of the things he was trying to achieve with Low and The Idiot, and to some extent, Blackstar.
Take opener Miami, for instance. It reeks of soot, as though it were covered in a cloud of radioactive fallout – an East Germany flag unrolled all these years since the wall came down, only the flag comes from a universe where the Cold War eliminated all human life. Despite being called Miami, this is absolutely Berlin. The groaning saxophones and metallic sheen are undoubtedly informed by Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy – particularly the icy soundscapes of the second half of Low. Second track Daylight Matters will, if you listen closely enough, remind you of a particular Beatles melody, for a while at least. It’s there, and instantly identifiable, but the contrast with the sonic backdrop is startling. The stark, frozen textures seem frozen in time. Cate’s plaintive, haunting vocals are amongst the most beautiful she’s ever committed to tape.
Home To You brings a kind of reprieve, if only because the melody doesn’t seem as caked in concrete as the previous songs. It’s brighter, and clearer, but after a few listens it unveils its sinister nature. Much like John Cale, and Lou Reed, Le Bon uses childlike melodies to invoke a particularly gruesome sense of horror. Mother’s Mother’s Magazines opens with a gothic shuffle and descends into a place of terrifying, steady mania – it sounds like something you might hear on The Raincoats‘ Odyshape, or the first couple of Magazine records, strangely. As it unfolds over its too-short four minute span, it becomes steadily unhinged, until you’re left with a “Here’s Johnny!” level of tension.
The icy soundscapes return with Here It Comes Again, which evokes The Cure‘s Faith album, in a freezer, in a gulag, in Siberia. It’s almost frozen solid, with its plaintive, wistful darkness playing havoc with your emotions. One of the earliest comparisons Le Bon was labelled with was a startling similarity to gothic goddess Nico – and this cut is a funhouse-mirror analogue of some of Nico’s Desertshore material.
Sad Nudes evokes Roxy Music, if all of their fizzing energy were corroded. The Light returns us to Berlin, with a slinky, jazzy smokiness that feels absolutely artificial – in the same way Iggy Pop painted a smile on Baby to hide the cocaine comedown frown. What follows, Magnificent Gestures, is the only track on the entire collection that has any sense of pace to it – despite being one of the longer tracks here, it almost gets up to a jog. Gone is the Le Bon of old, where zigzagging tempos and post-punk energy fuelled the majority of her albums. Over its runtime, it goes through about 50 different tempo changes, but it always stays near a danceable level.
You Don’t Love Me (a highlight) and final track Meet The Man close the album out in some style. The former has an almost sophisti-pop level of richness, despite its monochrome palette, while the latter is the perfect choice to bring the record to an end. It’s the most draining (and drained) thing on the whole set.
Cate Le Bon, in spite of all of her psychedelic tendencies, has made an album that you could almost certainly define as Brutalist. It’s a concrete monolith, hideous in its perfection but also enthralling to experience. It’s devoid of anything resembling ‘soul’, but full of the emptiness and sterility that one can feel when looking at the state of the world in 2019. Le Bon has immersed herself into Cold War waters and come up totally irradiated. This album, though not what anybody on the face of the Earth would call ‘fun’, is an absolute classic of modernist architecture. It’s certainly the best thing she’s ever done.