On 'Pompeii,' Cate Le Bon makes meaning from the opulent and absurd
The literary term anti-mimesis describes when life imitates art, instead of the other way around. When critics use the term anti-mimesis these days, they are usually talking about work — be it literature, fine art or music — that gives off a nonsensical vibe — you know, it's free associative, too weird to actually happen. Donald Barthleme, patron saint of the slightly disturbing and definitely surreal, wrote short fictions about stuff like an imagined conversation with Goethe, as well as a certain bad boy named Colby who needs to be punished; he trafficked in anti-mimesis. So did Leonora Carrington, who made paintings and wrote stories where dudes were always casually hanging out with a camel or a wolf. Cate Le Bon, the Welsh musician, makes music that you could call anti-mimetic or Dadaist. For a dozen years, she has made meaning out of high-art nonsense, turning simple, quotidian things into freaky and oblique images, the stuff of heady and sensual dreams.
Pompeii, Le Bon's deeply romantic sixth record, out on Feb. 4, finds nonsense and anti-mimesis in the antique and opulent. Le Bon's past records have also been disjointed and freaky and sensual, and often share sonic palettes. 2019's Reward was bari saxophones and dreams about night kitchens and mother's magazines. And on 2016's Crab Day, the vibe was very much childlike reverie mixed with post-punk melodies. Pompeii is more varnished, and the images it draws on are more distant, remote. The record goes by way of the Dionysian — of, as she sings on "Moderation," "pushing poets aside 'cause they can't beat the mother of pearl"; of "abstract and optimistic love," as she sings on "Wheel." These songs don't follow a specific narrative; they burst and bloom. They're velvety, with melodies that spiral and wiggle and lyrics that come at you in the form of sensual little fragments that feel airlifted from short stories and mini manifestos. "I'm older than glass / I'm kicking in the corner," she sings on the record's opener over choppy bursts of saxophone and bass. "I might not suffer / a resurrection," goes another line in the song, as if she's singing karaoke in front of a rosary, wearing a neatly pressed nun habit like she does on the record's cover.
When she's not playing deviously — and abstractly — with the spiritual and religious, she's experiencing ennui, like on "French Boys," where she sings about how she feels like a girl at a wedding who gets thrown a bouquet of cheap plastic flowers. The song is a sigh, an eye roll. At other moments, Le Bon gets straight-up aphoristic, like on the slacker rock "Harbour," where synths burble up like bog water in a fairy tale swap; guitars slink and shake. "What you said was nice / When you said my face turned a memory," she sings serenely as the song slowly collapses into a saxophone solo so divine it feels like a frequency that only little kids and people in heaven can hear.
Make no mistake: Le Bon isn't playing with nonsense and free association in lieu of an emotional register. Her music isn't all about making you feel good, making you want to freak your body and dance. Instead of being directly confessional, Le Bon lets you figure out what she's thinking through the twists and turns of her oblique songwriting, through those little vignettes she allows to break through the cracks. On Pompeii, the mood is decidedly melancholic; it is a cool-toned record that hints at disquietude and sadness. On the chromatic "Remembering Me," we see her in the process of being remade. "In the remake of my life / I moved in straight lines / My hair was beautiful," she sings, tongue in cheek. The song is dissonant; subterranean synths rise to the surface and a guitar solo makes you feel like your brain is an egg and the egg is going to crack.
Le Bon is really intentional about the ways in which she communicates through her art. She cares a lot about her work not coming across as bogged down and overly florid. She wants her work to feel ephemeral, a flash in the pan, a tiny blip of time in the history of the universe. She's said as much in a recent interview where she cited a work by the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, as a source of inspiration. In it, she explains, Bachelard talks about "how a piece of work doesn't have a past or a memory, it's just a flare up."
Pompeii is a record that feels like a flare up. It's an untethered record; it exists in what the kids call a liminal space. Look no further than the record's title track, where the Pompeii in question isn't necessarily the city that was buried by the explosion of Mount Vesuvius way back in 79 AD. Instead, it's a place to throw all your fears at. "Every fear / Every fear that I have / I send it to Pompeii," she sings baroquely over chintzy synths. She doesn't explicitly unpack what those fears are — that's for us to figure out. But that's entirely the point. Pompeii isn't supposed to make sense. Instead of spelling out what she means and what her fears are, she gives you a song. And with that song you can do whatever you want. You can dance, you can grapple with the past, you can burn the candle at both ends before everything combusts. She's not prescriptive about what goes into the liminal Pompeii. It's like those anti-mimetic writers, where life is art. The whole point is it's supposed to be weird and confusing and wonderful.
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