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Cass McCombs - Wit’s End

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Artist: Cass McCombs

Album: Wit’s End

Label: Domino

Review date: Apr. 25, 2011

After almost a decade of recording, the party line on press-shy Cass McCombs has emerged. Turns out he’s some kind of Bob Dylan for art-school graduates or former Vice readers. But his art doesn’t depend on intelligence alone: he usually has a few stinkers to make the sublime stuff go down easier. Best of all, he’s not around to be accountable for any of it, to do the dreary work of describing the border between “Cass McCombs” and Cass McCombs.

The idea of a singer-songwriter who doesn’t suffer our ravenous curiosity does set McCombs apart from the pack of willing participants in the indie media machine. His Wikipedia entry lists a grip of artists he’s played with, perhaps in an attempt to raise his profile, but it only serves to underline the fact that he’s a loner. That is, a loner who allows himself to be as pathetic as he is romantic, who is smart but embraces his own stupidity. He’s opaque, a quality that he’s playing for longevity. It works, especially when your peers claim some kind of “window on the world” transparency despite what looks more and more like barefaced shtick with every album. Accordingly, Wit’s End is his best album, although it only contains a few of his best songs.

As a whole, it’s lulling, a set of pure moods and murky conceits, as if McCombs is disappearing into his suburban gothic thing. Have you seen his most recent promo photo? It’s an overexposed snapshot of the singer sitting in a generic sedan in a big-box parking lot, long hair tied messily back. There’s a rogue shopping cart near the edge of the frame. It looks like he just got some depressing, regular news. That the insurance isn’t covering that root canal. This is great music to pay bills to.

Wit’s End is the third in what you can choose to discern as a trilogy. Superficial things — like strikingly similar graphic design, including the appearance of McCombs’ cracked peace-sign logo — indicate its kinship with its predecessors Catacombs and Dropping the Writ, but there are also deeper, album-length signifiers, like a steady increase in quietness and refinement. Subtlety reaches an apex on Wit’s End: there are bigger risks, delivered more confidently. It takes stones to deliver an album of grown-ass lullabies, or to place your daintiest song (“The Lonely Doll,” a celebration of aural lace and potpourri) directly after your latest and greatest (“County Line”). By this point, it’s all good. Consistency is a given, and listeners are in a privileged position to appreciate the music on its merits, rather than falling into the traps McCombs counts on us to set for ourselves. Because we are not so good at only listening to music anymore.

How you feel about Wit’s End will largely depend on whether you find McCombs’ free-associative navel-spelunking interesting (nothing new there). Wit’s End stands to lose a lot by being judged on a song-by-song basis: there are standout moments, courtesy of ingenious arrangements and lovely melodies, but the album’s shadowy guiding principle remains in my mind long after listening.

By Brandon Bussolini

Other Reviews of Cass McCombs

Not the Way


Dropping the Writ


Humor Risk

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View all articles by Brandon Bussolini

Find out more about Domino

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