Welsh songwriter Cate Le Bon breathes some much-needed ethereal eccentricity into this year’s pop offerings with her leisurely, wry take on folk and pop music. The accomplished songwriter has been something of a fixture in the indie and art pop scene, touring circuits since the late 2000s. Reward is Cate Le Bon’s new album on Brooklyn label Mexican Summer, and is strikingly original, possibly the most thoughtfully-composed pop albums of the year.
Stylistically, Cate Le Bon has all the trappings of a fiercely idiosyncratic craftsperson who is trying to make timeless music, rather than someone making music that sounds like the product of a scene. Her droll voice, which enunciates lyrics (in both English and Welsh) with such a plain and innocent matter-of-factness, always seems to stand perfectly alone, content to be unadorned and occupy a humble space. It is a distinct singing voice in the best way. One could say it evokes Robert Wyatt’s plaintive timbre, which sounds so strangely fragile the first few times you hear it, but becomes compelling with a combination of vulnerability and bravery.
Le Bon’s unique voice fits well with the intricate, leisurely arrangements that house it, favoring saxophones, unconventional percussion, and the piano to give a minimal, organic ambience. Le Bon’s calming voice often disguises hidden depths, such as the brooding and meditative song off Reward, “Here it Comes Again,” where the narrator urges us again and again to “set in a frame” a series of downcast, ghostly images that reflect their soul’s melancholy. “Half-draped eyes in a liquid night fall apart anew, too,” they remind us. Much of Le Bon’s music seems to comment on solitude and loneliness. And yet, it excels at keeping a light tone that doesn’t sound overly sad as it lays out gently philosophical images and ideas like “love neglected by reward” (“Miami” aims high for a song with so few actual words). There needs to be more pop like this in the world.