Cate Le Bon’s Pompeii reaches out with a cold hand

Cate Le Bon

Pompeii

Mexican Summer · February 4, 2022


Synths, light percussion, guitars, and horn instruments halfway fill the space, but air is at the heart of Pompeii. As Welsh musician Cate Le Bon’s voice intones abstract lyrics, the songs melt together. With its insular focus on a specific mood, Pompeii feels like an EP disguised as a full-length album. The cover art for Le Bon’s sixth album features herself dressed as a nun, staring out blankly into the distance. The expression makes it easy to conceive of the nun as the character of the album – the lone planet around which the world of Pompeii swirls.

The lead single “Running Away” is by far the standout; it’s the sixth track out of nine, and feels like the culmination of the whole project. “I’m not cold by nature,” Le Bon sings. “This could bring me to my knees…” The music video features multiple analog TVs, each with a different, bifurcated image of Le Bon: walking barefoot, her hands in her lap, and in chainmail, while the artist herself drifts under purple projections of light. Other songs, like “Moderation,” echo the vulnerability, stoicism, and longing of her persona. In the video for that song, too, Le Bon dons different costumes and plays with images, masks, and materials. The props’ effect is slightly artificial, but suit a character whose songs lean towards self-consciousness and drama like the lyric “I was born guilty as sin” on “Cry Me Old Trouble.”

Still, even as the atmospheric sound works in tandem with the imagery, there’s some songs that are lesser than others. “Remembering Me” leans repetitive in its lyrics, and the almost-yelping chorus distracts from the smooth instrumentals. “Dirt on the Bed” sways to the other direction, being just a bit too slow and droning; and “French Boys” has terrific production (the diffusion at 3:37 is just right) but the hook lyric – “French boys are making me wait” – is neither strange or poetic.

Pompeii is better approached as a whole than a collection of tracks. It’s so cohesive and single-target in its fixations that it could be too narrow and sparse for some listeners. For those who dig Le Bon’s sonic world, this is a perfect work to sink into and let expand.

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