Reward is an album that reveals more and more of itself upon further listens.
It’s easy enough to take furniture for granted. So much of it exists purely for function, and when it’s not being used, it simply holds its place. On the other hand, the process of sitting down or sleeping in a new room can be revelatory—these actions, performed in collaboration with a chair or a bed, can transform a space and your body within it.
All of this is significant to Cate Le Bon’s Reward, her fifth solo album, which she wrote while attending classes about making furniture. The LP isn’t directly about building tables or bookshelves, but its foundation is lessons learned from that process: seeing and experiencing the world from the vantage point of something you’re just figuring out how to craft with your own hands. Le Bon’s process involved not only the painstaking task of making something sturdy from scratch but also the solitude of living in England’s Lake District completely by herself for a year. The resulting 10-song work is a breathtaking expansion of Le Bon’s art and a marvelous collection of surreal objects, each one positioned carefully to be the perfect spot from which to dream.
Take “Here It Comes Again,” whose lyrics seem to contain glimpses of her life during that time. “Set it in a frame/ Here it comes again” references the act of construction, while “Man alive/ This solitude/ Is wrinkles in the dirt/ A borrowed love from carnivals” is directly about the radical aloneness from which Le Bon wrote these tracks. The song’s reliance on coolly ascending piano chords also gestures towards Le Bon’s decision to use a piano, rather than her usual guitar, as the foundation for her songwriting. At the same time, neither the song nor Reward as a whole relies on this backstory. They have a mystery all their own to capture the attention of listeners, who ponder what the “it” of “Here It Comes Again” is and try to picture those wrinkles in the dirt (a white shirt fallen from a hanger, perhaps, or a colony for bugs). Musically, it’s easy to notice that piano first, but other sounds gleam forth, each pulsing with half-drawn life: the jangle of guitar, echoes of Le Bon’s voice in support of her own, the lilting plunk of bass.
There’s no singular theme or motif on the album, and that’s part of its appeal. Jagged assembly lines and dripping, skipping hearts inhabit the universe of Reward, but some version of Miami exists here, too—just somewhere deep below the Miami recognizable from Trick Daddy and Pitbull music videos. The overall effect is something like science fiction without science, a bizarre post-future experienced casually rather than explained. This is clearly indebted to the post-punk posturing of Talking Heads or James Chance and the Contortions, bands who had the luxury of imagining the computer age as something metallic and carefully stylized. The bass and saxophone that dominate much of the LP’s sound point back to these artists without sounding derivative: the beginning, angular bass line of “Mother’s Mother’s Magazines,” for example, buzzes forth with immediacy, while the album ends with a breathtaking blend of synthesizer, sax and clarinet.
Reward successfully bucks contemporary trends in indie rock: it doesn’t feature any fuzzy guitar, quotable observations about love or lazy gestures towards political protest. It’s also starkly different in sound from her previous solo effort, 2016’s Crab Day. If that album piled guitar-driven ideas on top of one another, this one carefully arranges those ideas with a set of tools more suited to polish and precision. This may disappoint fans adherent to a scuzzier version of Le Bon, even if certain elements of her music have remained unchanged. Le Bon’s Yoko Ono vocal delivery, for example, is still central to her music, and her explorations of her voice’s range and sounds seem to be a key element of her artistic project. Her vocals on “Sad Nudes,” for instance, include a kind of wild sigh, sharp with malaise and effectively both startling and comical.
These touches make Reward an album that reveals more and more of itself upon further listens, that shows complexity over time instead of forcing it directly into listeners’ laps. It is music to not only spend time with but also spend time in, while you let its sounds reshape the space around you.