For most Britons under the age of 45, the Winter of 2020/21 was the grimmest in living memory. With the Delta variant causing an exponential rise in COVID cases – and without widespread vaccination to protect a vulnerable population – the UK was plunged into a stringent lockdown just days before Christmas. Just weeks after the economy largely opened up and the population got to once again experience the joys of semi-normal life, shops and restaurants were once again forced to shut and family plans had to be cancelled. The days were short, the nights were long and cold – and for many, both day and night was defined by crushing isolation. For most, that time represented the nadir of our ongoing pandemic.
A testament to the ability of great art to emerge from great pain, Cate Le Bon captures our modern-day Winter of discontent, with a fantastic quintet of lines on “Wheel”, the closer of her new album Pompeii:
It’s been a mild Winter here
And I’ve buckled like a wheel
Sucked the life from God’s routine
Broke the royal we
After enjoying a breakout moment with 2013’s Mug Museum, Le Bon has established herself as one of Wales most interesting songwriters – combining otherworldly lyricism with pristine art-pop arrangements. On her sixth studio album, Le Bon refines her existing strengths while creating some on the most outwardly pop songs of her career. Take pre-release single “Moderation”, for example, a meditation on the unsatisfiable 21st century urge for more; whose sonic pallet of groovy bass, guitar riffs and bubbling synths matches the ever-building desire that it’s lyrics express.
The lyrics of Pompeii often evoke centuries-old poetic and prose classics. Her turns-of-phrase are dense and layered – whole essays could be written from single verses on this album. There’s an impenetrability that pervades many of these lyrics – one set of lines from opener “Dirt on The Bed” comes to mind in particular (“Sound doesn’t go away / In habitual silence / It re-invents the surface / Of everything you touch”). This might make Pompeii seem like a frustrating and hard-to-access album, and it’s certainly a touch nut to crack; requiring many listens to fully appreciate. However, across Pompeii, Le Bon scatters enough revelations that are both digestible and largely relatable, while still remaining insightful and on-brand. “What you said was nice / When you said my face turned a memory”, she sings on one of the album’s most sincere and affecting moments.
Pompeii is an album steeped in introspection stemming from the Coronavirus lockdown. On “Dirt on The Bed” she sings of “recycling air” – of listlessly doing the same thing from the same room every day – while on the majestic “French Boys” she tells of desiring the unattainable and finding herself unable to escape destructive patterns (“And I’m in my way / But I’m never gonna understand it”). “This could bring me to my knees” she sings on “Running Away” – staring down oblivion. But Pompeii is an album that’s as much about pulling yourself together as it is about falling apart – “Get dressed / You’re a mess” she addresses herself frankly on the title-track in something uncharacteristically close to a spoken-word delivery.
Many of Pompeii’s best moments occur when Le Bon finds way to look both outwards and inwards in the space of just a few lines – occasionally even in just a solitary one. “Picture the party where you’re standing on a modern age” she asks of us on “Moderation”; a reflection on all the moments of misplaced collective optimism that occurred throughout the late 20th and early 21st Century. While on “Cry Me Old Trouble” she traces humanity’s existence back from the Biblical Eve (“It started in a garden”) to modern day, to remind us of the timelessness of suffering (“I was born guilty as sin / To a mother guilty as hell”). That last line recalls a famous Philip Larkin quote – “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do” – though in less stark terms.
Le Bon saves one of Pompeii’s best moments for last – or near-last, at least – with the penultimate “Remembering Me”, a track she described as akin to a “neurotic diary entry”. It’s actually remarkably clear-eyed, however, as she ponders legacy, memories and her overarching desires for life. “In the remake of my life / I moved in straight lines”, she begins the song, “My hair was beautiful / My eyes were slow / I had the heart of a thunderclap”. The verse evokes all the feelings of flipping through a photo album; as you subconsciously sanitize the past and hold on only to it’s best moments.
Nostalgia was, historically, classified as a mental illness, and it’s capacity to mentally overwhelm is put on full display just a few lines later: “Upset, and out of touch / Good grief, you miss so much”. That latter line being as much a reflection on everything we miss out on in our one short life, as it is a reflection on everything obscured and twisted by our selective re-telling of the past. Nostalgia isn’t all bad though, and in the second verse, Le Bon uses it look triumphantly back on her career beginnings: “I didn’t need anyone / On my own luck / I arrived just to seat the choir / And bowled them over”. It’s a reminder that humble beginnings often lead to the greatest of things, as it is of the sheer triumph that can be achieved through will-power and talent alone.
Best Tracks: “Moderation”, “French Boys”, “Harbour”, “Remembering Me”