In the nicest possible way, listening to a Cass McCombs album is like dipping into somebody’s personal scrapbook, rummaging around to see what bits and pieces they’ve come across in their travels. Story-tellers generally find other people’s lives more interesting than their own, and the sporadically San Francisco-based artist cleverly uses narrative to distance himself from his subjects, so you’re often left guessing whether his songs are autobiographical or not, in the same way we’ve never really worked out if Lou Reed really was the character in his song ‘Heroin’.
In fact, it’s very hard to uncover the real Cass McCombs, the nomadic lifestyle and publicity-shy attitude are well documented. So concerned were his record company about his movements that in 2010 they hired a private detective to trail him; with characteristic irony, McCombs turned the secret shots into publicity for Wit’s End, released earlier this year.
So he sits uneasily with the record industry’s publicity machine (what’s left of it!), but doesn’t generally disappoint with his musical output, a steady stream of albums over the last decade, and we seem to be even luckier this year with the additional release of Humor Risk(Humoresque?). It’s an intriguing collection of songs with laughter at their heart, a sort of foil to those who say his music is too dark and gloomy, but McCombs answers his critics with no ordinary kind of humour; rather this is a scatological collection of ideas and bunch of amusing vignettes, and not without the usual clever turn of phrase.
Pretty much all over the place, this one’s a stocking-filler of an album, so Christmas came a little early this year! Recorded in numerous locations, in homes and studios in California, New York, New Jersey and Chicago, McCombs gets as much recorded as possible before ‘themes’ start to emerge and he sorts the material into albums. Wit’s End was a slow-burner that he started a few years back, then Humor Risk joined the race, so it’s likely the recordings (both made with friend and arranger Ariel Rechtshaid, the partnership also on 2009′s Catacombs) overlapped.
While songs like the softly-rendered ballad ‘County Line’, about the havoc of unrequited love, and ‘Memory Stain’, the one that can’t be washed away even with booze (played out with that unforgettable clarinet coda) were both beautiful, they weren’t exactly searching for laughs; this one’s got a few, albeit with a customary dark veil drawn over the proceedings. Imagine some madcap Coen Brothers caper where a hapless bunch of petty criminals get in over their heads as a bungled drugs deal turns into a murder … you’v got the seeds of the 8-minute rambling ‘Mystery Mail’, set to a riff something like the 2-chord wonder of Iggy Pop’s ‘The Passenger’. The story unfolds through a series of letters from prison picked up by accident, we wait a long time for the final chorus but the ending is typically acerbic: “Mystery Mail/It read: “I hope this finds you well”/To no avail/You tipped the scale/Now I’ll see you in Hell”.
Humor Risk sounds like it was recorded without many edits, keeping it fresh with a driving energy to its songs, the majority of which use the conventional rock format. Drums and rhythm are certainly more evident here. ‘Love Thine Enemy’ sounds like a quote found on the back of a pack of 20, but then you remember Jesus didn’t smoke! Musically, it’s like Lou Reed’s ‘Sweet Jane’, but with an embittered and twisted narrative delivered with sweet irony to lend it some humour:“Every idiot thing you say speaks of Pain and Truth/Because of the beautiful way your tongue can seduce/What’s behind the mountain is a mystery/That’s why after the quote I added: Sincerity … and a million cigarettes later the quote reappeared”. Jesus loved his enemies but McComb’s advice is just to accept you’ve got them, and it seems more straightforward! Add a Velvets’ ‘Pale Blue Eyes’ guitar break towards the end mixed up with some delightfully odd machine noises and a honky-tonk bar-room piano in the background, and it kicks away nicely!
It’s the words that count more than anything on this album. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the lyrics as you listen. The harmonies on ‘The Living Word’ are about as close as anything comes to Wit’s End, a dark smooching number, but it’s underscored with some odd lyrical references to Lao Tsu and Ho Chi Minh and a slight homage to Big Star’s Third Sister Lovers album. He goes off on quite a few of these tangents on Humor Risk, like the curiosity ‘Robin Blue Eggs’ which would probably seem out of place anywhere. The song’s light banter apparently about stealing eggs contains oblique references to serpents and saints set to some repeated threadbare guitar phrasing, the sort of thing you’d expect from Bill Callahan/Smog. Who on earth is Heather anyway …? The lyrics don’t come with a set of footnotes, mystique is a weapon in this artist’s armoury. ‘Meet Me At The Mannequin Factory’ broadens an odd anecdote about a featureless model who was impossible to sculpt into a discussion about beauty, and ‘Mariah’ has the sound of an old field recording or demo, the broken-down guitar and doomed voice sounding like some kind of dark apparition … the master of despair forgot his sense of humour there for a moment, and we love him for that!
It’s hard to tire of the delightful turns of phrase and lyrical vignettes in McCombs’ writing. There are the funny ones (“I love what you say though sometimes it’s mean/Without earthworms how else would the soil keep clean?” from ‘Love Thine Enemy’”), the tangential ones (“In the Beginning, came the Word/Words can hurt/Let me speak the Living Word/LRH met Ho Chi Minh in Paris, 1939/Not that it matters the names, the place, or time” from ‘The Living Word’) and the naturally the caustic ones (“Not you again, I thought you died/I thought you were killed on your wedding night/Not you again, hypocrite/You’ve come to ask me to kill you again, is that it?” from ‘To Every Man His Chimera’), and actually lots more besides. I can’t think of many artists whose lyrics sound better and better the more you read them.
So a scrappy effort maybe, but that’s probably the way Cass McCombs heard it. Wisdom doesn’t always come in neat orderly rows, as Richard Linklater’s classic 1991 independent film ‘Slacker’ brilliantly shows. Following the conversations seemingly at random of a bunch of social misfits and bohemians on a typical day in Austin, Texas, the film unearths through their stream of consciousness some real philosophical gems of life and laughter. While McCombs previous album Wit’s End was the musical equivalent of prozac, Humor Risk follows this sprawling and plotless format, inviting us to just jump on and enjoy the ride.