In April 2017, Cate Le Bon moved to the Lake District of Cumbria, England, alone. She spent a year there, learning how to build furniture from scratch while constructing introspective songs on an old piano. Her fifth studio album, Reward, is the result of this isolation—ten sonically diverse tracks that are delicately layered in texture, accompanied by Le Bon’s swelling vocals that deliver short, surreal lyrics.
In the opening track, “Miami,” synth guitar and booming saxophone pair up to reflect the city of art deco bliss. “Never be the same again/No way/Falling skies and people are bored,” she observes of a place far from home. The back-to-back singles “Daylight Matters” and “Home to You” undoubtedly bring brightness to the record, but the lyrics of the former suggest a harsh reality: “I love you,” Le Bon repeats, “But you’re not here.”
Much of the record veers into the avant-garde, with Le Bon dipping her toes into obscure structure and chaos. “Mother’s Mother’s Magazines” evokes the alluring strangeness of David Bowie’s “What in the World” off Low, while “Here It Comes Again” features whimsical percussion and sweeping guitar. “I borrowed love from carnivals,” she muses. “Half draped eyes in a liquid night/I fall apart when you do.”
“Magnificent Gestures,” a standout track that features Kurt Vile on vocals, is a trippy expedition into art-pop territory. “She was born with no lips,” Le Bon declares triumphantly. “Drip drip drips.” The hazy piano on “Sad Nudes” is reminiscent of “Love Is Not Love,” a highlight from her great 2016 LP Crab Day. But it’s hard to go back and listen to earlier albums after Reward—the enhanced instrumentation and dreamy songwriting make this the singer’s strongest album yet.