It wouldn't have taken much for Cass McCombs' Humor Risk, his second LP this year, to be an improvement on the dour and lugubrious Wit's End. And it is, just not by leaps and bounds. It’s better enough to make Humor Risk a minor success on its own and by comparison a welcome course correction. Where Wit's End lingered too long with intriguing twists and turns that seemed to go nowhere, Humor Risk is for the most part direct, even punchy (thanks to its addition of the electric guitar). These songs are not necessarily better, but they are more inviting. Lost in the stylistic shift is Wit's End’s emotional heft, which eventually became overbearing. Humor Risk lacks the maddening ups and downs of the last record, but no peak here matches the virtuosity of "County Line."
Humor Risk’s strongest cuts, “The Living World” (the loveliest) and “The Same Thing” (the most immediate), rank among McCombs’ best, because he is at his least self-indulgent. (Wit's End's cornucopia of left-field instruments – no bass clarinet?! – is missed, nonetheless.) His lyrics, sharp as always, recall Dylan: opener "Love Thine Enemy,” where McCombs turns the biblical imperative on its head and deftly calls bullshit on its “lack of sincerity,” is a marvel. The swinging (and exhilarating) garage rocker “Mystery Mail” uses a McCartney-esque melody to deliver its venom. By Cass McCombs’ standards, it's almost a pop song. One finally ready to graduate to FM radio.
In spite of its overall melodic immediacy, Humor Risk is as hampered in kind, though not in degree, as Wit’s End. “To Every Man His Chimera,” “Meet Me at the Mannequin Gallery,” and “Mariah” lumber and plod along Möbius paths, like their Wit’s End brethren. “Mariah,” the worst of the bunch, sounds more like a demo or half-realized idea than a song worthy of McCombs’ superior talent.
Taken side-by-side, both of Cass McCombs' works are lifted, just a bit, above their respective flaws. Wit's End is deepened by Humor Risk's relative levity; Humor Risk is a relief from its ponderous counterpart. Neither album seems complete without the other, and that might be the most damning criticism of both. Had McCombs trimmed and combined, he could have had a respectful follow-up to Catacombs. Instead, we must stitch together a unified, and possibly great, album. At the very least, these songs deserve the attempt.