Cass McCombs, ever the troubadour, has traveled a long distance in two years:
2009: “You’re not my Dream Girl. You’re not my Reality Girl. You’re my Dreams-Come-True Girl.”
2011: “You never even tried to love me. What did I have to do to make you love me?”
The above lyrics, taken from the opening tracks of his acclaimed LP Catacombs and its follow-up Wit’s End, respectively, set the tenor for the albums that follow them and illustrate the emotional and tonal chasm – an abrupt shift from ecstasy to agony – that separates the two. The ominously titled Catacombs was, in fact, a collection of direct and sweet folk ditties, often uplifting or at the very least wry. Wit’s End is a step into the mire; its baroque and gloomy songs, which can be as lovely as anything on Catacombs, splay, stretch, and sometimes test the listener’s threshold for tolerating baroque and gloomy songs that splay and stretch in the mire.
Wit’s End begins with the remarkable “County Line,” five minutes and thirty-seven seconds of pure AM-radio Mellow Gold. PMA’s Genevieve Oliver has already (rightly) drawn a connection to the early-1970s singer-songwriter pop of James Taylor, but the song could have also fit snugly on Beck’s more-recent forlorn opus Sea Change. While every musical element within the song is nearly perfect – the woeful electric piano, especially – McCombs’ vocal performance is the highlight. His phrasing is exquisite as he moves from his round middle-register in the verse to the falsetto of the chorus, finally landing on the song’s signature “whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh.” It’s easily the album’s strongest track and one of the year’s best.
Don’t let “County Line” and its intoxicating groove set your expectations for the remainder of Wit’s End. McCombs takes a sharp left on “The Lonely Doll” and the album follows an odd, sometimes maddening, detour from there. “The Lonely Doll” is sure to be the album’s most polarizing song. Some will find it a fragile and gorgeous lullaby, its lyrical repetition heightening a melody lovingly borrowed from Dylan’s “4th Time Around” (which itself was not-so-lovingly borrowed from “Norwegian Wood”). Others will find its preciousness cloying, its tiddlywink bells maudlin, and its singsong rhyme scheme on the wrong side of unbearable. I still haven’t decided which camp I’m in.
A mere eight tracks make up Wit’s End’s 47 minutes, which makes the album feel both focused and directionless. Do we really need more than ten minutes of the side-by-side trudge of “Buried Alive” and “Saturday Song?” Yet the album’s longest tracks, “Memory’s Stain” and “A Knock Upon the Door,” benefit from their sprawl, especially the former, which features an elegant bass clarinet (!) coda. This is music that demands a saint’s patience and McCombs repays the effort sparingly. Though when he does, the results are magical.
Part of what makes Cass McCombs so intriguing, if not charming, is how utterly anachronous he is. Sure it may be an affectation, but you have to give the guy his analog cred. In a recent “interview” with Stereogum, McCombs demanded all correspondence happen via pen, paper, and the US Postal Service. The result, basically an incongruous rant by McCombs, was at times revelatory (much like Wit’s End). He made a point of offering, in one sentence, a defense and an inadvertent mea culpa for Wit’s End : “I wanted to make a record that only people who listen to my records would understand and everyone at Domino [his label] has been really supportive allowing me to try and out coo-coo self destructive ideas, it feels like they got my back pretty good.” Two cheers go to Domino for allowing their oddball talent to indulge his “self destructive ideas.” Whether Cass McCombs’ fans will agree with their decision is another matter altogether.