With the committed obliqueness of his lyrics and the adult-contemporary burnish that shines through his Morrissey-centered musical religion, Concord, Calif.’s Cass McCombs is a grotesque hybrid of 19th-century dandy and ‘90s sitcom dad. He sings lines like, “Prima donna / Dodged a call from / The investor,” with a subtle – but real – sense of urgency that lacks any sense of earnestness. Earnestness is an important illusion to get away from in indie rock, where everyone wears plaid but nobody listens to “Bob Dylan Wrote Propaganda Songs.”.
Catacombs doesn’t continue in the red-herring autobiographical mode of its predecessor, 2007’s Dropping The Writ. Many of the album’s songs – including two of its best, “You Saved My Life” and “Dreams-Come-True-Girl” – are heavy on the second person. And naturally, his interlocutor remains as slippery as the “real” Cass ostensibly hiding behind all the good-natured smokescreening. Musically, LP No. 4 has mostly dropped the dark, jangly mode of early tracks like “Sacred Heart” while preserving a Byzantine quality. It’s a twisty, somber affair as promised by the cover art, and Catacombs is also McCombs’ first album to fully realize that indirectness and specificity aren’t mutually exclusive qualities. Lyrically mushy but melodically solid songs like Dropping The Writ’s “Crick in My Neck” are superseded by 11 distinct vignettes that only flirt with album-length themes. It’s a small difference, ultimately: the album loses its inital momentum with track five, “The Executioner’s Song,” only one song deeper than Writ’s wall, “Petrified Forest.”
But then, attending to smallness is what his music is meant to do. Catacombs is graced by some articulate steel-guitar playing that is particularly effective in underlining McCombs’ calm, reedy delivery. The dialogue that forms between Writ’s opening track, “Lionkiller,” and this album’s quasi-sequel, “Lionkiller Got Married” is one of the album’s tiny virtues. Both songs are built around an unrelenting pulse, but the self-affirmation that opens and unravels through the earlier song (“I was born in a hospital...”) is twinned with the sound of sarcasm crumbling back into meaning (“I feel sorry for that kid / He had potential / I mean it / I really do...”). Although both songs are the most aggressive on their respective albums, the keening synthesizer backing of "Lionkiller Got Married" couples with McCombs’ measured words to give the impression of torchlight flickering on cave walls, a rugged kind of chiaroscuro.
The music isn’t sturdy enough to hold up bigger conclusions, and McCombs’ albums have always worked by drifting in and out of focus, with songs that would be filler were they not as mesmerizing as the hits. In this sense, Catacombs isn’t an exception to or refinement of what McCombs has done previously, just a soft demurral of the singer-songwriter career arc. Trying to follow along with the story that McCombs is trying to not tell gives a queasy feeling, the same kind of awkward comfort that the music telegraphs when it slips into the background. Catacombs can feel a bit like strip-mall flânerie, as if the singer were asking us to meditate on the serene beauty of a corporate park. McCombs is smart enough to get out of the way and let the combination work.