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It was on a mountainside in Cumbria that the first whispers of Cate Le Bon’s fifth studio album poked their buds above the earth. “There’s a strange romanticism to going a little bit crazy and playing the piano to yourself and singing into the night,” she says, recounting the year living solitarily in the Lake District which gave way to Reward. By day, ever the polymath, Le Bon painstakingly learnt to make solid wood tables, stools and chairs from scratch; by night she looked to a second-hand Meers - the first piano she had ever owned - for company, “windows closed to absolutely everyone”, and accidentally poured her heart out. The result is an album every bit as stylistically varied, surrealistically-inclined and tactile as those in the enduring outsider’s back catalogue, but one that is also intensely introspective and profound; her most personal to date.
This sense of privacy maintained throughout is helped by the various landscapes within which Reward took shape: Stinson Beach, LA, and Brooklyn via Cardiff and The Lakes. Recording at Panoramic House [Stinson Beach, CA], a residential studio on a mountain overlooking the ocean, afforded Le Bon the ability to preserve the remoteness she had captured during the writing of Reward in Staveley, Lake District.
Over this extended period a cast of trusted and loved musicians joined Le Bon, Khouja and fellow co-producer Josiah Steinbrick - Stella Mozgawa (of Warpaint) on drums and percussion; Stephen Black (aka Sweet Baboo) on bass and saxophone and longtime collaborators Huw Evans (aka H.Hawkline) and Josh Klinghoffer on guitars - and were added to the album, “one by one, one on one”. The fact that these collaborators have appeared variously on Le Bon’s previous outputs no doubt goes some way to aid the preservation of a signature sound despite a relatively drastic change in approach.
Be it on her more minimalist, acoustic-leaning 2009 debut album Me Oh My or critically acclaimed, liquid-riffed 2013 LP Mug Museum, Cate Le Bon’s solo work - and indeed also her production work, such as that carried out on recent Deerhunter album Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared? (4AD, January 2019) - has always resisted pigeonholing, walking the tightrope between krautrock aloofness and heartbreaking tenderness; deadpan served with a twinkle in the eye, a flick of the fringe and a lick of the Telecaster.
The multifaceted nature of Le Bon’s art - its ability to take on multiple meanings and hold motivations which are not immediately obvious - is evident right down to the album’s very name. “People hear the word ‘reward’ and they think that it’s a positive word” says Le Bon, “and to me it’s quite a sinister word in that it depends on the relationship between the giver and the receiver. I feel like it’s really indicative of the times we’re living in where words are used as slogans, and everything is slowly losing its meaning.” The record, then, signals a scrambling to hold onto meaning; it is a warning against lazy comparisons and face values. It is a sentiment nicely summed up by the furniture-making musician as she advises: “Always keep your hand behind the chisel.”
Emily says: Cate Le Bon’s fifth album came together during a period of self imposed solitude in the Lake District. Retreating from L.A. to a mountainside in Cumbria, she spent a year building wooden furniture and penning songs into the night. While writing an album in the woods may sound like a bit of an old singer-songwriter cliché, Le Bon’s offering is far from the soppy acoustic balladry you might expect. Instead, she has produced an album of delightfully unhinged art-pop which reveals the curiosities of her inner world.
‘Reward’ retains the off-kilter whimsy which is characteristic of Le Bon’s ever expanding back catalogue. She expertly toes the line between heartfelt sincerity and playful absurdity, maintaining an edge to her songwriting which keeps it from sounding twee. Some of her vocal melodies alone would feel at home in a more conventional pop album, but the instrumentation elevates it to outsider status - discordant stings of electric guitar, metallic synths and an anxious ticking always lurking in the background.
The slow, stately opener “Miami” builds through a rising dialogue between the vocals, horns and synth which eventually disappears into thin air. Le Bon then takes us on a soft rock jaunt permeated by a sense of distance and longing: “Love you, I love you, but you’re not here”. “Mother’s Mother’s Magazines” spirals into nervy post punk territory, with each instrument locked into a mechanical groove which rolls forwards like a steam train. But it’s the final song “Meet The Man” which shines the brightest lyrically and melodically, ending the album with a heartwarming resolution: “Love is good, love is ancient to me, love is you, love is beautiful to me”.
2. Daylight Matters
3. Home To You
4. Mother's Mother's Magazines
5. Here It Comes Again
1. Sad Nudes
2. The Light
3. Magnificent Gestures
4. You Don't Love Me
5. Meet The Man