If you’ve been following Cass McCombs for awhile, you know that his albums have slowly become less loud, less showy, more intimate, and more refined. Though PREfection and Dropping the Writ both were finely executed and enjoyable albums in their own right, his last album Catacombs felt like a triumph in artistry, the sound of a musician stripping his sound of the recognizable layers of influence to expose the songwriter’s core. It proved that the opaque McCombs was also good at working in a clearheaded vein. Seeming even straightforward at times, he pulled off an affecting version of his patented oblique reflection, mixing it with grateful domesticity and plainspoken confession. Yet, even the awareness of his entropic songwriting trajectory and move into more directly emotional territory doesn’t quite prepare you for the dour surprise of his new album WIT’S END, a somnambulant set of songs which are deeper and darker than anything he’s done.
This is the first McCombs album to sound composed on piano and keyboard as much as on guitar, and overall the arrangements stray away from folk and rock idioms pretty much completely, embracing stark piano, soft Fender Rhodes, and a variety of twinkling chamber instruments. The soft-focus, blue-eyed soul of “County Line” leads off the album with a song that tells of an escape which is simultaneously a return – a sad sort of retreat – and though it’s deliberate pace and warm instrumentation make it as easy as a pillow, it actually kicks up quite a bit of dust compared to the seven waltzes and ballads that follow. McCombs, who wrote from a perspective of contentment throughout his last album, has jettisoned that for the voice of a person burrowing deep into loneliness and disconnection. Sometimes this comes off morose, as on the celeste-colored “Buried Alive” and the up-and-down moods of “Hermit’s Cave”. At others it feels more blitzed and bewildered, lulled by emotional shellshock, as on the repetitive and drunken music box strummer “The Lonely Doll” and the dull, achy desolation of “Saturday Song”. The imagery of “empty houses and family plots” and stomachs “tied all in knots” further the brooding feel explicitly, but it’s lines like “A calf is easy to brand” which really capture the futility, weirdness, and elusiveness of sadness in which WIT’S END dwells.
McCombs’ singing is great as always, emotive and technically on the mark, reaching for the soulful high notes on opener “County Line” and highlighting the right moments with just the right amount of vibrato. The most vivid musical moments here are when the woodwinds drop in, picking up the brooding where his voice leaves off, particularly on the final three minutes of “Memory’s Stain”, where a bass clarinet and harmonium stretch back and forth across each other with a subtle tension which almost perfectly mimics the unsettling settlement of a deep depression. On WIT’S END, McCombs is following paths laid out by folk minimalists like Tim Hardin and Gordon Lightfoot and synth and piano brooders like Leonard Cohen and David Ackles. Yet, he marks off his own territory with his commitment to following his muse instead of writing for an audience, and in his compositional style, which is willing to dispense with tradition by either bending awkwardly to move in unanticipated directions or to stand completely still at great length. If it doesn’t put you to sleep, WIT’S END provides a rich and empathetic companion to loneliness.