Cass McCombs – Wit’s End (Domino)

June 2, 2011 by  

Cass McCombs’ latest album, Wit’s End, is dogged by a gothic eeriness reminiscent of Nick Drake’s final recordings. You can hear the Black Eyed Dog barking from the outset as McCombs takes us on a tour of his melancholic mental landscape: one populated by rejection, listlessness, betrayal and painful memories.

Throughout his career, McCombs has cast himself as the archetypal balladeer: too often drunk, too often alone and wincingly candid in the confession of his shortcomings. County Line, the albums opener, firmly continues this trend. We find our protagonist homebound after what feels like a long absence, singing “County Line, you never leave, try to love me/ What did I have to do to make you want me?”Here, McCombs practices a spatial romanticism, investing a mundane element of his environment, in this case an invisible line on a map, with an overpowering sentimentality. Attributing such weighty symbolic importance to something so arbitrary is a recurring theme in American music that McCombs uses to great effect (other examples include The Modern Lovers’ Roadrunner, in which Richman channels the excitement of youth through a bland suburban highway).

Throughout Wit’s End, McCombs’ vocal delivery is immaculate: syllables are artfully elongated or interrupted and the length of each breath is calculated with artful precision to fit the melody. This allows McCombs to toy with his lyrical content, playing with concepts and rhymes that are beyond most songwriters. In Buried Alive, for instance, he brews a bizarre rhythmic cocktail, singing “Pride, monomania, everything from earth, topaz vapour/ Hi-chlorizide polyethylene resin lacquered newspaper.” McCombs’ song-writing is liberated by his ability to adapt words and phrases, allowing the songs content to span far beyond the everyday fare of songwriters. Indeed, Wit’s End reveals the dependence of lyrical content on vocal delivery, proving how a thorough mastery of the latter greatly enhances the former.

McCombs is a master of metaphor. In Memory’s Stain, a blemish on a thrift store sweater is used to symbolise the enduring power of memory, exploring the triggers that jolt the memory into recollection. From inspecting a stain on his sweater, the singer proclaims “Well, I’ll be damned/ A calf is easy to brand.” It’s a powerful couplet that reminds us of how impressionable we are, and ultimately, how little control we have over the subconscious.

Beside McCombs lyrical talent, Wit’s End has much to offer. The instrumentation is seductive in its subtlety: electric organ, piano, guitar, banjo and light percussion are common enough instruments, but, like McCombs singing, they are used expertly and economically. So much so that the songs on Wit’s End often dissolve at mid-point into eerie silence before gradually taking off again.

It feels like McCombs uses song-writing as a vehicle for confession and self-examination, and as you’d expect, this does not make for easy-listening. The singer’s melancholia is almost tangible and comes across both lyrically and musically. Yet, Wit’s End is such a fascinating and addictive album: it’s not often that one comes across such intelligent and profound song-writing.

[rating:5]


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