Cate Le Bon’s Reward cleaves into two distinct halves, one that pulses with ideas and legible emotions and another that wanders, sputters, and jars under a pretense of free-associative experimentation. In her previous work, the Welsh musician has purveyed left-of-center, dreamy yet slightly discordant psych-folk. Blessed with both a classically gorgeous voice and an ear for friction and quirk, Le Bon uses her silken vocals like a decoy, teasing low-key balladry while guitars, horns and xylophones abrade together in the production. In this spirit, prior albums Crab Day (2016) and Mug Museum (2013) offered melodic tunes with enough avant-garde braininess to differentiate Le Bon from fellow songwriters (Laura Marling, Julien Baker) who write, sing and play guitar with notable mastery.
Reflecting on the process of creating Reward, Le Bon describes living alone in a cabin in England’s Lake District, attending furniture-making school by day and setting scraps of dreams and memories to music after dark. This self-imposed solitude undergirds both the best and worst instincts of this new album. “Daylight Matters,” “Home to You,” and “Sad Nudes” paint both personal and societal isolation with disturbing clarity, while “Magnificent Gestures” and “You Don’t Love Me” appear more like doodles that only make sense to the person sketching them. The latter song builds an ear-pricking fusion of exhaling synths, a sax that blurts tastefully around the chorus, and a spare guitar riff that brings a touch of disharmony to the track.
These sounds establish an anxious mood, portending an off-kilter treatment of unrequited love. Upon closer inspection, however, the lyrics resemble an exquisite corpse, a surrealist writing exercise meant to unlock subconscious ideas that purposefully don’t cohere. “Take your cake out of my face” is a great clap-back line, but Le Bon follows it up with a series of aleatory phrases strung together: “On point / Divine / Die hard.” Having established her own cleverness on better songs than this, Le Bon threatens to make the listener feel stupid for not getting the gist. Listening to “You Don’t Love Me,” “Magnificent Gestures,” and closing track “Meet the Man” conjures the experience of puzzling over squiggles on a canvas while a hipster in thick-rimmed glasses whispers “but it’s art!” in your ear.
The album’s more illuminating songs clock the malaise of living in a techno-capitalist proto-dystopia, our psyches warped by devices through which we send nudes but don’t talk. It’s a status quo that’s both decaying our souls and reigning very much supreme, and these songs register ambient anxiety that pricks the brain like a migraine that won’t go away. Thanks to her zeal for odd sonic experiments, Le Bon effectively transposes that jarring state of consciousness into sound. “Mother’s Mother’s Magazines” and “Sad Nudes” work as a pair of dispatches from different moments of gender-based disappointment, written from two distinct female perspectives.
The former opens with a playful, wiggly bass line that gives way to synthesized percussion scraping like a hard-bristled brush on a countertop, an impressive use of digital production to conjure a familiar organic sound. Itchy, staccato guitar chords pair with Le Bon’s disjointed vocal delivery, sketching an uncomfortable domestic scene where boredom gets broken up with shallow fixes like the delivery of a women’s magazine offering false promises of a better life: “Leaflet drop in the courtyard / Call and divide.” The chorus widens into an unexpectedly catchy hook, with piano chords and a saxophone giving oomph to the refrain “Mother’s mother’s magazines / Dry on the bedside.” The song ends with two minutes of instrumental noise that evokes the brain chemistry of a wife concealing rage beneath a grin-and-bear-it façade.
“Sad Nudes” depicts a hyper-contemporary version of a similarly depressing bedroom scene, opening with piano arpeggios and the line “sad nudes in my room” repeated with melodramatic, campy flair. Proceeding at an anemic pace, the song captures the apathy one feels in a digitally induced state of mild arousal. In this context, the line “The more you feel the more you have to lose” sounds a bit obvious but works as an apt twist on an old cliché.
If “Sad Nudes” represents the achievement of sexual freedom that “Mother’s Mother’s Magazines” clearly lamented, then the former seems almost more dispiriting than the latter. Songs like these prove that Le Bon’s musical consciousness is rooted in clear theoretical commitments, like Laurie Anderson’s appropriately alarmist, subtly paranoid piece “O Superman” (1982). In addition to Anderson’s beautiful discord, Reward’s aesthetic at its best recalls visual artists like the Kienholzes, Laurie Simmons and Martha Rosler, who perceived gothic terrors in the everyday and channeled them into art that sparks bone-chilling shivers of recognition.
Lead singles “Daylight Matters” and “Home to You” recall Le Bon’s memorable early work, as they capture evergreen themes that will outlast fleeting social observations. “Daylight” sounds like a synth-assisted jazz ballad about reclaiming personal space. The peppy xylophone and bass-forward rhythm section on “Home to You” makes a pop-adjacent number out of philosophical (and even political) meditations, specifically about the concept of belonging in a geopolitical atmosphere darkened by exclusion. Variations on the word “dream” appear on most tracks, suggesting Le Bon’s moving preoccupation with states of suspended aspiration.
If Le Bon had made an EP out of Reward’s more thematically coherent tracks, then the result would have been a gently Dadaist response to late-capitalist malaise. While the album’s adventurous aesthetic sometimes suits her lyrical ideas, other songs quite literally create additional noise for listeners who might feel disoriented enough already. Rather than fixing a steady gaze on our isolating and destabilizing present, Reward often taunts, pokes, glances, and winks—gestures that pester and provoke without leaving much of an impression.