For me, a giant fog hangs over everything that is Cass McCombs. Dropping the Writ, his third full-length (and his first for Domino), simply drives the message home. Not that he’s ever been less than capable as a songwriter. His mastery of the art is almost bar none: He consistently and reliably crafts engaging, absorbing songs that resonate on both emotional and technical levels, and he makes them catchy to boot.
But there’s an agnostic quality to his work, something that expresses a visceral understanding of the unknown, and it continues to intrigue me. Is it the dreamlike bass lines that recall the brooding cheerlessness of Joy Division? The ambiguous (and frequent) references to Christianity? The reflective lyricism of self-indulged moodiness?
McCombs’s enigmatic charisma is further illuminated here on Dropping the Writ, because the album relaxes considerably in form and tone from his two previous releases. It still retains those unpredictable genre-hopping tracks — evoking in one case the minor-key harmonies of Brightblack Morning Light on “Deseret” — but it’s gentler, more familiar, and easier to absorb as a thematic whole. Past eruptive, emotive gems like “Scared Heart” and “What Isn’t Nature” are exchanged for ballads a la Elliott Smith on the acoustic, finger-picked “Full Moon or Infinity,” and the lolling “Pregnant Pause.”
The characteristically monochromatic, repetitive movements of 2004’s A and 2005’s PREfection (a.k.a. “My Master,” “Bobby, King of Boys Town,” and “City of Brotherly Love”) are also here, but downplayed. Instead, the skillful, musing pulse of “Petrified Forest” and the achingly hopeful “Windfall” expose McCombs not conceptually as some dime-store novelty but as a serious songwriter contending for credibility from within the circle of his influences. Writ is collected, controlled, and polished — a big step from the spastic, ambient bent of A and the atmospheric highs and lows of PREfection.
Still, his affected, crooning tenor remains distinctly at home — radio-friendly single “That’s That” nods heavily to Morrissey with a playful vibrato. Although this may make the album more “accessible,” it establishes McCombs as a creative force capable of regenerating a compelling hold over his niche following. It’s this carefully constructed image and his esoteric sense of identity that make him such an interesting personality. Dropping the Writ is a quiet reflection of McCombs’s subtle, inventive presence, as if there’s some great story behind the mystery, waiting to be figured out.