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“Running Away” by Cate Le Bon: Enigmatic Art Pop about Modern Malaise

CLB

This is one of those reviews that I’d normally start by talking about The State Of The World These Days, but I’m trying to wean myself off of that. For one thing, going on about the zeitgeist has become an obvious, predictable crutch in music criticism these days. It’s the equivalent of a high school valedictorian quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson or the Webster’s dictionary definition of “graduation.”

For another thing, it would be awfully condescending of me, wouldn’t it? What would be the point in telling you things you already know? It’s 2021. You all have phones, you all have Twitter, you all get notifications from Bad News Daily and the Oh Christ What Is It Now Bulletin. Modern technology has brought about an unprecedented level of connection across the globe, and while there are countless benefits to the internet it has also made it easier to paralyze yourself with numb, helpless anxiety.

Cate Le Bon, the Welsh art pop songwriter who has only recently been given her dues, taps into this peculiar connection on “Running Away.” Le Bon had this to say about the song, the lead single for her upcoming album Pompeii: “The subtitle is: You will be forever connected to everything. Which, depending on the time of day, is as comforting as it is terrifying. The sense of finality has always been here. It seems strangely hopeful[…]The world is on fire but the bins must go out on a Tuesday night[…]The grief is in the saxophones.”

As that statement suggests, “Running Away” deals with this issue in a rather enigmatic, elliptical manner. Le Bon has never been the sort of artist who comes out and says exactly what she means: she sets moods and suggests narratives with her music and with well-crafted lyrical fragments. “I’m not cold by nature,” she sighs in the chorus. “This could bring me to my knees.” Sometimes, a crisis halfway across the world can knock you out of balance.

The music of “Running Away” reinforces its lyrical themes. On one level, it’s light, quirky, and almost playful-sounding. A bass riff plods and squelches in the background as Le Bon sings, and the melodies have a blocky yet singsong quality: Stereogum’s Chris DeVille compared it to some of Brian Eno’s earlier work, and it’s an apt comparison. But on another level, there’s an unspoken tension in the air. The tempo is always just slower than you’d think would be normal, and every musical element feels like a small part of a larger, disquieting narrative.

As Le Bon suggests, the grief is, indeed, in the saxophones. They swell up at climactic moments, sometimes indistinguishable from synths until you listen closer. It’s an apt metaphor for the kind of grief that’s become a part of our interconnected existence: the pain seems like your everyday malaise until it’s too late.

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