The American press is on a constant look-out for a cozily distinguishable great American songwriter – the protest-hero and lover’s-poet; enigmatic to the bone, aloof in interviews, and cryptically revealing in a knotty discography. It’s fair to say that comes from our traditionalist mindset, the number of “new Dylans” who have graced the pages of rockist institutions like Spin or Rolling Stone is immeasurable – none of them ever approaching the iconoclastic role set out before them. There are plenty of great folk singers, Josh Ritter has stayed continually likable for six whole records now, but nothing ever reaches the stuff of legend. The scene is too stratified for one guitar-brandishing songwriter to lead a generation – and we’re probably better for it.
So here’s Cass McCombs, a San Francisco singer-songwriter whose profile has dramatically risen over the past three years. He has a cagey, obfuscated persona, present in his wallflower word-choice and delicate arrangements. He sings primarily about not being loved – taking cues from John Vanderslice to Bill Callahan in his vast, barroom waltzes. He’s also the kind of guy who could feasibly be swept up in a fervor of folkie hype – if he wasn’t so reclusive that is. Wit’s End, his 2011 effort, is genuinely pretty, moving in slow-motion through a wide range of acoustic texture and gently accompanied by McCombs’ hanging mid-range voice – but it’s also peculiarly unsociable. The core songs are so deliriously deadened that latching on to any aspect; be it McCombs’ lazy swings or a sprawling clarinet swoon, is rather difficult. The withdrawn nature turns the album into a sort of character-building exercise, sometimes these bruised songs in valuable ways, while also occasionally dipping into mere frustration.
It seems Cass McCombs might be in a small competition with himself to up the stakes on his own heartbreak. The year-end-list song of 2009’s Catacombs was the wrenching ‘You Saved My Life,’ and here he opens with the pre-release ‘County Line’ – an absolutely devastating tale of unrequited love. His shrill stabbing attack of “you never even tried to love me / what did I have to do to make you want me?” is immediately resonating. He’s left alone with his pain, drifting listlessly along with a placid organ, and strangely it’s also probably the catchiest song on the album. ‘The Lonely Doll’ has floating bell-chimes guiding McCombs gentle couplets into something that earnestly sounds like a nursery rhyme. Something you could picture him singing to a darling child or a sleeping lover.
Those two songs are about as musically unblemished as Wit’s End gets. Elsewhere McCombs hedges on beat-less, almost ambient realms. ‘Buried Alive’ never settles into a specific groove, and suffers as a sort of smudge of a song. The wandering, and powerful ‘Memory’s Stain’ gives way to a gothic second-act of paired piano and clarinet – coalescing into some of the most melancholy sounds on the record. ‘Hermit’s Cave’ is eerily quiet, but lanced with a sharp wooden drum-punch. The closing epic ‘A Knock Upon The Door’ slowly wraps around on itself over the period of 9-minutes, with reoccurring lyrics and all the sequestered compositional touches on the other songs coming together into a minstrel-ish collective. They all have a sense of melody, but the overall acoustic antagonism and undying thematic melancholy makes the final six song stretch quite demanding. This isn’t a comforting record, its bones are rattling and its mind is fraying; it requires a sense of endurance unlike most other alt-country standbys.
Cass McCombs’ biggest strength is also the reason he’ll never be inaugurated as the folk-hero people may want him to be. His introspection is secluded to personal experience, not tales of dramatic heartbreak or love – and his lyricism, while lucid, is left tantalizingly ajar. It’s not the sort of thing the world can wrap its arms around, but he’s becoming more universal in a different way. His cadence and disposition is becoming very Cass McCombsian, digging out his own personal enclave in the ridiculously derivative world of the singer-songwriter. Will he make better records than Wit’s End? Hopefully, probably, but it still stands as something that could only come from him.