Approaching the end of a prolific decade following the release of her 2009 debut album, Cate Le Bon retreated to a remote Lake District cottage and enrolled in a furniture-making course. Living alone, she spent long days in a workshop and, by night, sat with an old piano priming the songs that would form her next musical project. If the resultant album is anything to go by, I’d like to imagine the furniture she made was baroque, odd and fronted with a pleasingly smooth veneer.
Every single element on this record is in exactly the right place. Le Bon’s lyrics are precisely enunciated, her voice still hovering in the same constellation as John Cale and Nico, yet unmistakable in its cool, controlled delivery. The percussive elements on the album have a laid back, narcotic vibe, over which unhurried piano, synth, bass, guitar and saxophone dance in tight, minimalist formation.
No wonder, then, that in addition to Le Bon, the musicians fleshing out the distinct sound on Reward have collective pedigree: they include Stella Mozgawa (Warpaint), H. Hawkline, Stephen Black (Sweet Baboo) and, if you listen hard enough, Kurt Vile providing backing vocals on the propulsive Magnificent Gestures.
The ten lean tracks on which they play form a more openly welcoming sound than Le Bon’s four previous solo albums. Lead singles Daylight Matters and Home To You are arresting pop songs whose 60s-inflected breeziness belies their melancholic lyrical content. Indeed, several other songs on the album (like the beautiful Sad Nudes) pull off a trick by coming across as mournful and emotionally honest in spite of the frequently absurdist lyrical content.
This ascension towards warm, psych-pop perfection somehow doesn’t seem to compromise any of the oddball qualities that make Le Bon’s music so distinct. But stripped of the joyful dissonance often present on her previous albums, the songs on Reward seem able to gleam brighter than before. Le Bon is operating on a higher level here and this enriching musical offering should rightfully consolidate her as one of the most exciting songwriters working today.