Cate Le Bon

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Reward Review

by Fred Thomas

Welsh artist Cate Le Bon's fifth album, Reward, was created in a vacuum of solitude. While Le Bon was in an intensive furniture-making course by day, she spent her nights alone at the piano writing the skeletons that would be fleshed out as songs here. Nonstop activity is part of Le Bon's brand, and while her collaborative band Drinks and production duties for Deerhunter's Why Hasn't Everything Already Disappeared? took up space on her resumé not long before Reward, three years passed between its release and her last fully solo album, 2016's Crab Day. Where that album and much of Le Bon's work were centered around nervous, angular guitar rock, Reward exposes new dimensions of her songwriting. A controlled, confident vocalist and inventive guitarist, Le Bon has built many of her best songs around fluid riffs and unexpected vocal turns. Reward is comparatively restrained, composed on piano and focusing largely on synthesizers, saxophones, and metallic percussion sounds in open-ended arrangements. The album opens with "Miami," a song that eases the album into being with synthetic bell tones and a patient sequence of slow arpeggios. The song oozes slowly, unfolding until Le Bon's rich, layered vocals trade off with saxophone harmonies. The song is distant and playful at once and sets the tone for an album that communicates joy as much as it does crushing loneliness. Reward chases several impulses. Songs like "Home to You" and "Daylight Matters" are straightforward pop through the alien lens of Le Bon's psyche. Familiar sounds (dry '70s drums and airy, chorus-drenched guitar chords) are transmuted into strange melodies as organic and synthetic instruments blur together. Even as some of her most direct work, the catchy melodies and lovelorn lyrics are layered with mystery. When working in more abstract modes, Le Bon taps into the same level of persona, curiosity, and delighted weirdness that marked Bowie's Berlin trilogy or Prince's most internal work. The awkward funk of "Magnificent Gestures" is a prime example of this side of the album, with Le Bon exploring sounds and lyrics like a child picks up toys, quickly considering a universe of possibilities in each idea before moving on to the next. These elements of pop and experimentation intersect seamlessly throughout Reward, exemplified in the end half of "The Light," which unravels from soft pop into a frantic monologue. The album is spacious and remarkably constructed, with hidden compartments built for secret sounds that seem to unlock with repeated listenings. Easily Le Bon's most involved, risky, and satisfying material up until this point.

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