The Welsh musician Cate Le Bon recently put out an album that, though it garnered gushing critical praise, was anything but attention-seeking. “Mug Museum” is the sort of record that gives itself up, slowly and slyly, upon multiple listens. An onion is the wrong analogy, because Le Bon is neither caustic nor obvious. Her work is more like a family photo album, lovingly assembled with a whiff of mystery hanging over the very pages that purport to lay everything bare.
Fittingly, Le Bon—who plays the Middle East Upstairs in Cambridge on Saturday, Jan. 18—is not one to overstate things. “You want it to be natural and you want it to be organic,” she said recently over the phone from Los Angeles, where she moved last year. “You’re not trying to cultivate those things. ... You have to just let the record happen.”
Yet “Mug Museum” clearly benefits from a sure, deliberate hand. Le Bon sings in a pure soprano, delicate as an eggshell and, on occasion, as shatteringly sharp. Next to her voice, guitar is the most present character, offering concise, on-the-nose remarks and jangly counterpoint. While the vocals swell with intricate harmonies, the band, which features multi-instrumentalists Sweet Baboo, Nick Murray, and Le Bon’s partner H. Hawkline, provides fleeting moments of dissonance. The producers Noah Georgeson (best known for his work with Joanna Newsom) and Josiah Steinbrick help give the album its nostalgic flavor, reminiscent of ‘60s pop with a touch of psychedelia and a dose of post-punk eccentricity.
“Growing up, the whole Britpop scene exploded, and of course I was living in Wales,” says the 30-year-old Le Bon. “Having those bands to look to was, I think, really important.”
Yet her biggest influence, arguably, was her family. Le Bon, born Cate Timothy, describes her household as one suffused in music. Her parents encouraged the children to sing and play instruments, though never in any competitive context. Le Bon’s father made a special effort to introduce her to his favorite artists, like Pavement and Nirvana, and to “steer me away from all the bad bands,” jokes Le Bon. “[Music] was just something that was around growing up, you know,” she explains. “And because it was presented in such a nice way, I guess it was something I wanted to carry on doing.”
Family is an ever-present theme in her recent work. Her maternal grandmother died after the release of 2012’s unruly “CYRK,” prompting the more contemplative, restrained “Mug Museum.” Throughout the album, uncertainty reigns. “Are you with me now?” Le Bon asks in a song of the same name. “It’s not impossible/ It’s not unfathomable.” The questions are disrupted only by the chilling certainty that comes from a brush with death. “No God” lays out this terrifying discovery in as many words, though Le Bon’s delivery is surprisingly serene.
It’s an album that stares hard at the most incomprehensible existential truths while finding solace in rare, inexplicable moments of warmth. “There is a feeling I love/ Buried in my brow/ I have no reason to run/ I see to reason,” she sings in “Are You With Me Now.”
Mugs, the most comforting of homemade artifacts, not death, take center stage in an album inspired by loss. In fact, the first 60 people to buy the “Mug Museum” pre-order bundle received a handcrafted mug made by Le Bon herself. “Since my mug-making days we have about a million mugs now, all different levels of competency,” she says, with a touch of self-deprecation. “So there’s some really shocking ones that might scald you when you’re drinking your tea.”
Perhaps it’s this good-natured modesty that tempers what might otherwise be a dark, self-pitying theme. “It’s not about bereavement, it’s not supposed to be a morbid record,” Le Bon says of “Mug Museum.” “I guess it’s just about ... the first time in my life when I felt a palpable shift in, I guess, the female roles in the family, and I just found that really interesting. And I guess maybe one of the first times I’d ever come close to thinking there was some sort of meaning to life.”
She muses on this idea for a moment, then adds, with characteristic understatement: “It was kind of nice to have something meaningful to write about, you know?”
Amelia Mason is a writer, musician, and bartender living in Somerville. She is a regular contributor to The ARTery. You can follow her on Twitter @shmabelia and Tumblr: http://thebestalbumofalltime.tumblr.com/