On her latest release, Reward, Cate le Bon envelopes us in a uniquely ethereal, slightly absurd, world that is more often than not mesmerizingly dreamy, yet shockingly grounded. The album itself is like an ocean wave around your feet at the shoreline, coming up close then falling back, but doing so in such a subtle way that you sink into it without a thought. While a lot of the lyrics are relatively opaque, the lines that creep through are poetically rich, pairing well with the synth and horn-heavy music that suggests a rich inner life within each song.
For instance, the first track “Miami” features le Bon singing “I’ll take some time, I have some thoughts.” That’s an incredibly apt phrase to hear at the beginning of this album because it so simply states the sentiment of nearly every musician, but especially this one. Everyday emotions are explored on Reward and performed with a contagious level of patience and attention to detail. This initial track, “Miami,” is a great start to Reward and an immediate access point to le Bon’s musical world. The song isn’t an instrumental, but it might as well be because the ascending and descending synths, paired with a spare horn, bring forward the music way past the lyrics of the song.
“Daylight Matters” pulls you further into Reward’s world, with a more structured, single-ready sound. Cate le Bon sings the refrain “I love you, I love you, I love you…” in her highest, sweetest register while the music beneath her sounds more subdued to match the end to that winding refrain: “but you’re not here.” That juxtaposition is found throughout Reward, to great effect.
The most surprising and unusual combination of sounds comes from “Mother’s Mother’s Magazines,” which turns its back half into an instrumental diversion filled with peppy horns that bop along like they’re coming from a particularly experimental circus performer. That slight tinge of absurdity, or the uncanny, benefits the song and adds an element that makes this track impossible to ignore. It also demonstrates some of the joviality and self-awareness to be found in Reward. This element can also be glimpsed in “Sad Nudes,” which uses its title and le Bon’s overly dour delivery of “sad nudes” as well as its kicky brass to underline the melodrama behind the titular concept. Le Bon isn’t making fun of her subjects, or laughing off vulnerability and putting as at a distance. Rather, these moments of levity are reminiscent of moments in your own life when you know your emotions are overpowering and perhaps uncontrollable, and perhaps your actions are a bit ridiculous, but you just need to feel those ridiculous, uncontrollable emotions for a minute.
As a whole, Reward is a, well, rewarding listen. (I wish there was a better word to use there). Even during the more subdued tracks like “Here it Comes Again” or “You Don’t Love Me,” Cate le Bon’s vocal performance and detailed, crisp instrumentation is always compelling if nothing else. Vocally, le Bon in tone and delivery feels like a millennial art school student descended from the Euro-chanteuse Nico but with less depression and drug-haze and more playful experimentation (like the delayed sighs in “The Light” that turn “me” into “me…. hee”).
In a later track, “Magnificent Gestures,” le Bon sings that “truly I like to dream/romance is company” which perfectly bookend the lyrics in “Miami.” The songs of Reward, often related to romantic dilemmas and questions, are entirely “dreamy” if there is one word to use for them. The actual final note from Reward comes from a few bursts of nearly discordant jazz at the end of “Meet the Man.” It feels like the experimentation and musical playground that is Reward is necessarily petering out, spitting out the last few notes it has to get off of its chest.
There are moments where the dreaminess of Reward edges into plain sleepiness, but there is always a flourish or thrillingly unusual track (like “Magazines”) around the corner to grab your attention back again. Reward is a gentle, but sturdy, piece of work that is romantic, dreamy, a bit bizarre, and generally enchanting for the majority of its forty-odd minutes.