Cate Le Bon: “Mug Museum” Review
There are two competing narratives in the press release accompanying Cate Le Bon’s newest record Mug Museum. One addresses the self-reflection following a death in the family (Le Bon’s maternal grandmother passed away, a sea change that left her “mulling over the importance of [her] place and purpose within this female chain”). The other, Le Bon’s decision to relocate to California and all of that California sunshine that that move entailed.
Listening to Mug Museum over the past few weeks, I definitely hear the former. But I struggle to hear much sunniness in this dense and contemplative collection of songs. If California has imparted anything it seems to be the Doors’ predilection for twilight psychedelic organ riffs, which Mug Museum has in spades. Perhaps the fact that Le Bon wrote most of the tunes in her native Wales never gave California a chance to brighten all those shadows. Or maybe geographic location just isn’t that important.
Whatever the reason, I am pretty happy with the results. To my mind Mug Museum is Le Bon’s most mature, dynamic work to date. It’s composed of ten psychedelic rock/folk influenced pop tunes that impart contemplativeness and self-seriousness. It’s introspection you could dance to though – Le Bon’s intricately stitched organ, synth, and guitar arrangements are buoyant and upbeat without sacrificing any of their gravitas, and her Nico-esque singing voice sounds bewitching in the pristine production (courtesy of engineers Noah Georgeson and Josiah Steinbrick).
Lyrically speaking Le Bon is as opaque as ever – though themes do emerge. A subtextual motif of doubt seems to emerge in songs like “No God” and “I Wish I Knew,” (the latter of which she is joined for by Perfume Genius’s Mike Hadreas). Both tunes hint at spiritual connotations though they are also vague enough that they could easily be applicable to something else. A sampling from “I Wish I Knew”:
There’s no working it out
My wanting is beyond our fields of formula
There’s no boundary to devotion
No territory to handle and cut neatly in two
I wish I knew, I wish I knew
Elsewhere, knowing Le Bon’s history, it’s easy to try and hear messages to her deceased grandmother in tunes like “I Can’t Help You” and “Cuckoo Through the Walls.” However she isn’t as straightforward a lyricist as to be able to feel confident in those assumptions. Really, Le Bon’s lyrical meanings are known to herself and herself alone – and trying to translate them to linear meanings is no simple task.
Luckily no such translation is necessary. Whatever the meaning behind them these are fantastic songs – and a welcome return to Le Bon’s psych-influenced sound after last year’s Cyrk took something of a pop detour. You can pick up Mug Museum tomorrow via Wichita Recordings or wait until January 25th when she’ll be visiting our fair cities to play at the 7th St. Entry.