Music News

Cass McCombs Lets His Songs Do the Talking

In 1970, Elton John released his self-titled sophomore album and Tumbleweed Connection. In 1974, Kiss released their eponymous debut and its followup, Hotter Than Hell, nine months later. In 2003, alt-country songwriter Ryan Adams released his most flippant album, Rock N' Roll, the same day he released his darkest, Love Is Hell Pt. 1. (The next year, he released three albums.)

In recent years, the idea of releasing two records in one year has become a foreign one, with labels looking to squeeze every last drop of commercial blood from a musical stone.

But more than that, people don't seem to care much for records as singular, unified statements anymore. "The album" has decreasingly become the way we digest music (think of Radiohead's string of releases in 2011: an EP followed by a single, a string of YouTube videos, and remixes).

Where does that leave someone like nomadic singer/songwriter Cass McCombs? His pair of 2011 records, Wit's End and Humor Risk, are albums in the classic sense — complete works designed to be played from start to finish, viewed as complete entries in a mysterious catalog.

McCombs himself probably doesn't care. Given his famously icy approach to interviews — witness his brutal tasking of Pitchfork, in which he cannily cuts down writer Ryan Dombal after being asked what about Humor Risk he finds funny: "Well, you can't just explain a joke, can you? Either it isn't funny, or the person just totally missed the punchline" — it was almost a relief when he turned down an interview with New Times. His publicist issued a note from McCombs that read:

"You may say my logic is flawed. Logic generally is; I speak from the heart. There are many corruptions in music, and music is a microcosm for our world. I believe we need more women in music on all sides. To male journalists, I hope you see this is not a personal slight against you, but a symbolic gesture to even the playing field . . . I heard that a male magazine editor in Nashville implied that this symbolism was 'reverse sexism.' This gives you an idea of the corruption we're up against." (Don't worry, we've got a female journalist reviewing his upcoming show.)

But it's just as well. McCombs dwells in mystery, leaving little more than his albums to speak for him. Which is refreshing, in our social media age, when details are shed by the moment. McCombs excels at stories, like the agrestic "Robin Egg Blue," from Humor Risk, or the aching Gordon-Lightfoot-on-downers "County Line," from Wit's End. He sings in riddles: "Should I have not been hungry?" and "I can smell the columbine," and the songs range from sparse, acoustic-guitar-and-clarinet affairs, like "A Knock Upon the Door," to rock 'n' rollers like "Love Thine Enemy."

McCombs' latest, though, might just screw up the whole "mysterious wander" thing. "Bradley Manning," a song for the U.S. soldier arrested for allegedly leaking information to WikiLeaks, is about as transparent as anything he's done. Over a Neil Young dirge-grind, he sings, barely able to fit the lyrics into the stilted melody, "Today, those who got up in Bradley's face / Wish to remain anonymous in their disgrace / They spread rumors around that he wet himself scared / Even if that's true, I really don't care / We've got a saying around here: 'Shit it rolls down hill.'"

Does the song signal a new direction, perhaps an album of protest songs, or simply a departure from the poetically vague words of his 2011 combo? It's hard to say, and McCombs isn't likely to say it. We'll just have to wait, and listen. It'll probably be worth it.

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.