Imagine a hollowed-out coconut with a paper umbrella, full of a powerful psychedelic. One sip and you’re along for the ride with Cate Le Bon on her fourth album, Crab Day. The Welsh singer-songwriter moved to Los Angeles in 2013, and it’s clear Le Bon’s latest was inspired by a Pacific sensibility that translates musically to a vibe reminiscent of a tiki bar in Wonderland.
The tracklist carefully maps out a journey from start to finish. The opening chords of the title song signal to buckle in, with an insistent, rhythmic guitar followed by funky, beachy keys. These parts move with a frantic energy that the album’s first lines challenge, as Le Bon’s eerie vocals slice through: “It doesn’t pay to sing your songs.” Still, she’s singing hers, and the intonation isn’t bitter; instead, what she’s saying is that where we’re going, money doesn’t matter. With a haunting voice, she beckons to follow her down the rabbit hole, where there will be a celebration of a holiday no one’s ever heard of. Toward the end of the song, her ghostly falsetto returns: “Put your love in me on Crab Day … who am I to love you on Crab Day?” She evokes a Los Angeles cult leader of the 1960s, but the effect isn’t as seductive or tantalizing as the real thing; instead, its more like witnessing that hypnotic power through the remove of a documentary. Rather than achieving that undeniable emotional pull, Crab Day ends up taxing, rather than delighting, the listener.
The strongest tracks on the album are those on which Le Bon fully executes the surreal ocean-holiday theme. Jangly guitars and layers of spectral generate a sense of unreality on “Wonderful”. The coda breaks down into cacophony over a repeated lyric, which deepens the “we’re all mad here” feel. Then, at the album’s halfway point, Le Bon unleashes “I’m a Dirty Attic” and lets her vocals take center stage. Her vocal range shines, straining to plumb her alto depths all the way up through a soaring falsetto. In that ability to channel sunny highs and ominous lows, the cult leader aesthetic comes through. The strange, associative lyrics (“Paint me in a picture with a new face / I’m a body of dreams for you”) and intense guitar come together for an immersive, eerie song engaging enough to convince anyone to follow Le Bon wherever she’s going next.
The similarly effective “We Might Revolve” jumps wildly from ethereal falsetto to a quiet spoken word and then right back into the stratosphere. At the song’s close, the unravelling of a guitar solo takes the listener along with it. Unfortunately, Le Bon’s doesn’t always commit so fully to that imaginative playfulness. Tracks like the melancholy and forgettable “How Do You Know?” and “Love Is Not Love” undermine the songs around them and erode the album as a whole by drawing attention to the artifice of the concept. Though it spans just ten pop songs, the album drags considerably.
The Crab Day journey wraps up with “What’s Not Mine”, in which Le Bon brings the listener along with her back up to the surface. It’s not a coincidence that the vocals on this track are the least intelligible and accessible of the whole album — at least at first. It’s a little melancholy, just like the end of any trip, highlighting the unreality and boundary-invasion ideal in an immersive artistic experience: “I was lounging in your disguise/ I was reading through your dead eyes/ I don’t even know what’s not mine.” It’s sad, and weird, and through the very long guitar solo, the listener is reborn and spit back out into whatever reality they had inhabited prior to pressing play.
Crab Day marks a considerable step forward, appealing to existing fans while also announcing a huge period of growth. At times she reaches new, fantastic heights, all while staying true to what’s made Le Bon so bewitching in the past: her haunting vocals and spooky sensibility. As Le Bon grows in confidence and vision, her work will grow even more immersive — perhaps even transformative.