Cass McCombs has created his own little world. The elusive, frequently nomadic singer-songwriter doesn’t conduct interviews in person or over the phone. He restricts his correspondence to mail — that is, snail mail, via the good ol’ USPS. He’s aloof, but not in a holier-than-thou way. Rather, he pours himself into his music instead, extending the Luddite-like architecture of his own life to his almost painfully intimate songs. WIT’S END, like the four albums that preceded it, is McCombs’s own world: beautiful and dense, but often exhausting to sift through.
2009’s Catacombs brought the singer rave reviews and increased notoriety on the strength of tracks like the moony-eyed “Dreams Come True Girl” and “You Saved My Life.” Part of that record’s appeal stems from its un-coolness — nobody makes such romantic folk music anymore, stripped of any adornment save McCombs’s simple voice and lyrical wit. His direct songs seem to be a cure against the coldness of the digital age, which is funny given the writer’s willful isolation.
That sense of isolation seems to be weighing on him, and consequently it weighs down WIT’S END. The lyrics are bleak, heady, and constantly philosophical, framed by some of McCombs’s most complex melodies. The arrangements themselves are fairly simple chamber pop orchestrations, affording room for lines like “Waking up to the breath of the old / In a sea of black” to stand out in the mix. At eight songs and forty-five minutes long, the record takes its time unfolding and refolding itself. McCombs addresses his darkness and solitude at length, describing being a “prisoner of love” in a “hermit’s cave” or in a place “that time can’t erase.” The thoughts are wistful but probing, and it’s haunting to hear his voice unable to resolve the repeated question marks.
The record is most effective when he sits back and lets the melodies themselves do the searching. Both “Saturday Song” and “Memory’s Stain” are jazz-like in their composition, allowing the piano to share the limelight with the words. In the case of “Memory’s Stain,” McCombs steps out of the way for the three-minute coda, allowing clarinet and harmonium to build the emotional core and a mid-album reprieve from the constant stream of thoughts.
The obvious outlier is “County Line,” arguably McCombs’s strongest song in a discography riddled with evocative folk ballads. It’s one of those rare perfect songs: gentle electric piano, a sturdy backbeat, that yearning voice, with nothing out of place or extraneous. The warmth of the song is disarming, considering it opens up such a downer of a record. Even the refrain of “you never even tried to love me” is resigned and almost hopeful because that “whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa” answers it at every turn. But its beauty doesn’t linger; instead, McCombs submerges you into the world of his own choosing.
So few artists can create a musical world that listeners can dive into and lose themselves in. WIT’S END is one of those records, but the complexity and immediacy is often daunting like the dollhouse that McCombs’s describes in “The Lonely Doll”: Look, but don’t touch. We get to peer deep into McCombs’s mind, but with the benefit of coming up for air once the record ends.