Cass McCombs’ best song to date, “You Saved My Life,” has a music video that’s a perfect metaphor for McCombs’ point of view as a writer. In the video, McCombs wanders haphazardly through a Chicago street festival. The camera trails behind him as he winds through the crowd, never showing his face until the end of the song. He’s walking the opposite way of the festivalgoers, and instead of blithely pushing his way through, either finds roundabout ways to dodge them, or slips through mostly unnoticed. Just like that upstream journey hints, McCombs has a deft touch when it comes to exploring emotionally charged situations with objective detachment. He can do it without seeming cold or unfeeling. He’s the journalist of social oddities and dysfunction, presenting the facts with a little wry commentary thrown in. And now that McCombs has left Chicago and taken up residence in Los Angeles, he’s got more material than ever to stoke those fires.
This year, McCombs released two short albums: WIT’S END and Humor Risk, seven and eight songs long, respectively. Dividing this year’s artistic output in such a way makes complete sense from a thematic point of view. If this pair of albums can be considered two letters, WIT’S END is the breakup and Humor Risk is the one where you’re picking up the pieces and starting fresh, albeit wiser, more guarded, a few more nicks in your emotional armor. The title tells the story: humor stems from showing someone an alternate perspective on a situation; the contrast makes us laugh. It’s a risk to be that person, the guy weaving through the crowd from the opposite way.
The two albums are two different ways of looking at the same problems: making sense of chaos, and the lonely journey that accompanies that quest. WIT’S END tackles these issues with a solipsistic, moody voice, but Humor Risk is less self-absorbed: a jaded — but sort of amused — take on his surroundings. Leadoff track “Love Thine Enemy” sums it up best by popping the insecure trappings of modern young adulthood with a penknife: “Love thine enemy/ But hate the lack of sincerity” could be the rallying cry for post-post modernism.
True to that axiom, McCombs doesn’t hide behind arcane, flowery lyrics or couch what he’s saying in metaphors. He’s sincere in his affections, straightforward about loneliness, and whimsical without getting precious. Even songs that verge on the nonsensical — like the dropped-stitch lullaby “Mariah” — paint a complete picture of his subjects. Album standout “The Same Thing” is a particularly artful example of McCombs’ ability to wield bare-bones language without seeming taciturn or gimmicky. The lyrics are spare, little one-phrase vignettes that piece together like a mosaic of someone coming to peace with an inability to change his surroundings, accepting both good and bad and trying to make sense of it all by striking a happy medium.
Across the board, Humor Risk’s instrumentation verges on the hypnotic, establishing a pattern, then sticking with it throughout the song. The music never obscures the story, even on the rollicking, guitar-heavy modern outlaw ballad “Mystery Mail,” which sounds as though it was ripped straight from the late-60s McCartney songbook. The detailed account of two intersecting lives and a fall from grace comes across like something like a folk-rock version of a Scorcese film.
Beatles comparisons often ring hollow in music reviews, but what the hell, I really think this is pretty accurate: this is sort of McCombs’ White Album — a collection of songs that show off the myriad musical genres McCombs can work with, some of which are punctuated by ambient studio noises, creaking doors, voices in the background, society cracking through the perfect veneer of studio trickery. Although there’s a lot of sonic range on Humor Risk, this collection of songs is stylistically united by the wry, playful way they explore what it means to be human: trust, love, etc. It’s someone who’s above getting mad, instead focusing on what he can do to make sense of the chaos. In “The Same Thing,” McCombs sums it up economically: “Equal light, equal dark.” Humor Risk proves that striking a balance doesn’t necessarily imply stasis.