Perennial musical outsider and low key art-pop genius Cate le Bon has smoothed some of her rough edges and delivered another success with the stellar Reward.
Le Bon has always been a musical iconoclast, attacking the standards of pop, rock and folk with her own inimitable take on each. Her music is instantly recognisable – kooky, strange, often jittery, and unpredictable. On Reward, Le Bon slows the tempo and focuses on songcraft. This is her strongest set of tunes to date, but they’re still told in her own special language. It’s a welcome shift – these songs are still undeniably Le Bon, but they’re more comfortable than ever, being strangely beautiful rather than feeling the need to throw their quirkiness in your face.
This may be due to the writing process, with all the songs born from just Le Bon and her piano. The focus, then, is on strong progressions, simple but effective instrumental lines, and the best set of hooks Le Bon has come up with yet. Look no further than Daylight Matters – this is a big pop track driven by a spare piano note ringing again and again, and boasts a beautiful hum-along chorus. Her delivery of “I love you I love you but you’ve/ gone” is something only Le Bon could deliver, and it’s hard to forget.
Single Home to You strikes gold with the same approach, a singalong which relishes in repetition – because what lovely repetition it is. A catchy xylophone line and ringing guitar carry the tune, paring themselves back at just the right times as they let Le Bon’s voice take over. The track ends with a great double-tracked refrain – think Hey Jude but at a tenth the volume. Le Bon captures lightning in a bottle a third time with late album earworm The Light. The tempo is slower still and the xylophone switched out for horns, but the track’s calling card is once again Le Bon’s irresistible, catchy vocal. The track length highlights the album’s only real flaw – some of these songs stretch, but they never really build. It’s an intentional move, but one that deprives them of the narrative heft that Le Bon is capable of.
Elsewhere, Le Bon tries other moods and comes out on top consistently. Indeed, there isn’t a duff track on the album. Album opener Miami starts with church bells, synths and horns over a slow build-up. It somehow manages to sound forlorn yet triumphant at the same time.
Magnificent Gestures is a throwback to 2016’s Crab Day – hurried horn blasts and clipped drums drive the track as Le Bon proclaims “she was born with no lips/ Drip drip drips”. The chorus is totally demented, backed by odd clanging guitar. Throughout this album the instrumentation is on point – impeccably odd, but not overbearingly so. There are all sorts of squirmy little guitar lines throughout this thing, as well as some beautiful piano and synth riffs. They never take centrestage, reserving that to Le Bon’s voice.
Mother Mother’s Magazines is another weird distraction. Le Bon’s vocals chirp and chatter over a Cure-esque reverbed bassline and a very odd trumpet figure. The track closes with a long coda, as close as we get to a ‘jam’ as the trumpet continues to blare and the drums clatter in their adorably stunted way. The instruments cut out at the end leaving a strange warbling noise you weren’t aware of till that very point. You wonder if it’s been there the whole album. Finally, Sad Nudes is worth mentioning if only for its title. It’s the most Kate Bush of all these tracks (Le Bon’s closest musical analogue), with one of the strangest yet catchy choruses you’ll hear all year.
Reward is an easy recommendation. Cate Le Bon is one of the best outsider pop artists in music today, and hearing her songwriting mature is a pleasure.