It begins with “Miami” and immediately I’m in the midst of a cascade of questions. What is this Welsh singer doing with this word, with this city, of all cities? She pronounces it so opaquely. Mi-ah-ah-mi. Stretched far out. The saxophones and the low chiming bell do sound a bit like a city — but is that all? All I have before me is this red, tilting woman, alone on a rock. Austere. “Decorate your own disco.” “Love neglected by reward/OK.” Opaque.
That is to say: Why Miami?
Why, to this Welsh woman, of whom I know so little except that her voice is alien and aloof and somehow above all alluring to my American ears, is Miami so important that it must come first?
I don’t know quite why but still, Cate Le Bon wraps that inimitable voice around “Miami,” and I do think of a city. I suspect it’s her ode to every city: that’s almost exactly how it sounds. And I think of Orlando, even though of course it’s not Miami, but the song buoys me along anyway in the sadness that comes with that. And she is singing to it, the city. Maybe to all cities. Maybe even to the century itself. “Take some time.” “Mi-ah-ah-mi.” A long sigh. Then those wordless, syncopated “ahhhs.”
Maybe I focus too intently on just this one mysterious song. Yet it seems purposeful, juxtaposed against the rest of the album, which is not necessarily like a city (though it could soundtrack a quiet one, at the emptiest part of the night). More an album of interiors, ambiguous transmissions from the very inside of a person’s head.
More than almost any album in recent memory, Reward envelopes me completely. It’s a marvel in its way: the arrangements are impeccable, not a note out of place, nostalgic in a pleasantly unspecific sense. Yes, it pulls at sounds from weird Brit post-punk bands and the prim pop of Roxy Music. The attentive listener is probably reminded of Brian Eno’s first albums. But these are only the barest of sonic touchstones and, since nearly all music in the undercurrent today exists mostly to emulate the past, it’s too easy to simply list and list what ‘X’ artist sounds like, instead of really digging into it. Or just digging it. Like they used to, you know?
Le Bon’s music overflows with images of objects and things, of people and the rooms they inhabit. Very explicitly so: “I’m writing it down, but the room escapes me.” “Sad nudes in my room.” “A day in the life/Arranging the chairs/Love you I love you I love you I love you/But you’re not here.” In one song it’s Mother’s Mother’s Magazines spread out on the bed. In another she imagines dead flowers stinking up the hallways. Loss, absence, loneliness — these are experienced in deeply physical ways. So, too, is love: “If we meet/And we drink from borrowed cups/You read the room to me/And the changing of the light is torture,” she sings in “Home to You,” which is not a weepy homecoming but, wonderfully, a list of things which home actually is.
The music, the sound itself, with her piano and those breathy saxophones, with that plinking xylophone-like keyboard, projects this totalizing sense — of the drawing room, the salon, perhaps, or even just the way memories and light drift around through our most private spaces. Though it can be delicate and melancholy and so so lonesome, there is some comfort, some contentment to be found in your solitude, there alone among the many little things of life. I’m reminded of Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own,” and the idea — her very feminine inversion of “traditional” ideas, of the woman and her household — that the room, the home, can be the site of empowerment and creativity.
And, true, this is all to be read into the album, introverted as it is. The flow of images and feelings hangs just out of reach for the listener. Le Bon is careful to keep it abstract, gently aloof. One gets the rare sense that this music was made just as much for her as it was for you, and you are only being gifted with the chance to listen in.
So we turn to one of the other truly great albums of this year so far: Weyes Blood’s Titanic Rising. On the surface, Weyes Blood — in real life, Natalie Mering — seems the far musical opposite of the homebound Le Bon: cinematic, widescreen even, at times psychedelic, borrowing aggressively from the classic sounds of Laurel Canyon and 70s soft pop (with lead guitar via George Harrison’s ghost, apparently). But there is a similar commitment to a rigorous interiority, to the spelling out of a woman’s inner space in images and stories. Both share, too, a sly courting of theatrical conventions and very specifically dramatic tones and harmonies (you’ll know it when you hear it). Which strikes me as a kind of new benchmark for modern “independent” music, where so many built-in devices seem to sort the music nicely into either pure kitsch or anti-kitsch. The embrace of out-and-out drama, the revival of some “sentimental” mid-century forms — each adds another dimension (in Mering’s case, a very American one) to this certain stream of music, which always threatens to lean towards old bourgeoise lines of battle.
And here a pet theory of mine comes into play. Le Bon’s music has something of the salon to it — a very European way of experiencing music, surviving its trip across the pond to the U.S. only as reminiscent of painful aristocrat/prol class divisions — but it also has something of the cabaret, of the usage of dramatic conventions to create the illusion of the salon’s intimacy between performer and artist. The spotlight shines tight on the singer and attention is paid to her every gesture. This is also a very European way of doing musical performance.
In America, however, we’ve mostly settled on two ways of doing musical drama, split in the mid twentieth century between two of our biggest and most ostentatiously democratic forms: movie musicals and Broadway. But here’s the key — prior to that division, it wasn’t just musicals. So many films from the Golden Age of Hollywood folded that specific kind of music and drama into their frames, into the rhythms of the three-act audience picture itself. It’s what we think of when we think of that era of great big roadshows and red carpets, Grecian movie stars, Technicolor, etc, etc. At least — that’s what Natalie Mering thinks of.
When I first heard Titanic Rising, I told a friend it was like hearing a psychedelic Carpenters, and I stand by that. Not only does Mering often sound eerily like the late Karen, her constantly unpredictable harmonic turns and the heft of these huge, stately songs are really, deliberately showy. They have melodies that echo big, famous soundtracks and the kind of lush, widescreen pop (which the Carpenters still represent so well) that at one time conquered the 1970s. Lyrics about Andromeda, galaxies, and futuristic technologies abound. And I mean, c’mon, look at that cover.
Then there’s “Movies,” the centerpiece. The thesis, if you will. Mering is as straightforward as can be: “This is how it feels to be in love…” “Put me in a movie/Everyone will know me…” She leans into the mythology wholeheartedly. Bubbling sci-fi synthesizers, her voice sounding like it’s coming up from underneath the ocean. She is the Titanic, rising. “The meaning of life/Doesn’t seem to shine like that screen.” The track builds, the ship rises, and she emerges with a shameless “I lo — oo — ve movies!” There’s some ambivalence, sure, but it’s blasé. The statement is clear: cinema is dramatic fabrication, “Making love to a counterfeit,” but it’s also as real as life, realer even. It shapes dreams in a way that is actually magic.
And I admit I love how unabashed she is celebrating it.
It ought to be clear to even casual music listeners that this yearning — that movie kind of yearning, the most completely American kind — is still ripe for examination through pop music. Hell, Lana del Rey’s made herself a #1 pop star on just that idea alone, and her Rockwell-lite execution of it has been the most uninspired, unimaginative version possible. What happens when a great singer and songwriter of real depth gets around to the idea? If I have my way, Mering ought to be considered among the first artists to really do the idea justice, at least in this decade. And here’s where Le Bon serves as such a nice complement: her revival of careful, quiet European drama the perfect flip-side the massive musical tableaus of “nostalgic futurist” Mering.
Both of these women have released multiple albums up to this point but — arguably — haven’t completely coalesced their ideas this well before. Interestingly, both come down very favorably on the side of love, even (gasp) romantic love, tipping their hats to old gauche tropes that mostly make us shudder, despite the fact that the art we make always says otherwise. I wish I had another thousand words to describe why that’s kind of quietly revolutionary and, moreover, why it’s made almost inevitable given the aesthetics they’ve chosen.
But what these albums represent in the end is, I think, part of the continuing evolution of the only real trend I can spot in the so-called “indie music” world. That is — the rise (over the last decade, perhaps since the mid 00s) of brilliant, single-minded musicians in complete creative control of their projects. This is what I tend to call Auteur Pop (a term that I almost think I made up, though doubtless someone got to it long before me). It’s the kind of music-making that most excites me, that most excites a lot of the people I know who care deeply about pop music outside of the Top 40. Other than hip-hop (which harbors one of the only true avant-gardes in this moment), this is the most authentically Pop music alive, springing equally from the democratization of recording and the new ability to distribute it. Weyes Blood, Le Bon, and others prove constantly that this stream of pop consciousness is capable of containing almost anything, of revisiting nearly any era, exploring the mind of any person. And that shows absolutely no sign of stopping. Which is cause for celebration if anything ever was.