CASS McCOMBS: WIT'S END (2011)
1) County Line; 2) The Lonely Doll; 3) Buried Alive; 4) Saturday Song; 5) Memory's Stain; 6) Hermit's Cave; 7) Pleasant Shadow Song; 8) A Knock Upon The Door.
In 2011, Cass McCombs released two complete albums — one that, according to him, was thought out slowly and meticulously, and another that was punched out more or less instantaneously. And I do believe that with the first notes of Wit's End, it becomes easy to guess which one was which without having to listen to the second one — the words «slow» and «dreary» do not even begin to describe the lethargic coma that it is capable of inducing.
Now, of all people, I shouldn't be the one to be complaining about lethargy in reference to a Cass McCombs record. I mean, I was totally seduced by the multi-layered, aching, almost transcendental lethargy of A, and all through the next three albums I kept complaining how any attempt to introduce some energy, speed, and classic pop hookiness into his songs only detract from his strongest talents — so nothing could be more fine than a full return to the slowcore formula of A, right?.. Well, turns out it depends on certain conditions.
Take the second song here, ʽThe Lonely Dollʼ. It's five and a half minutes of a slow, never-changing acoustic waltz, accompanied, I believe, by a soothing celesta, so that you could be plunged into a bit of a «dollhouse magic» state — and with quasi-autobiographical lyrics that tell of the protagonist's relation with "a singing doll and her grievous call". Nice? Nice. But five and a half minutes? If anything, the song sounds like a minimalist version of Dylan's ʽ4th Time Aroundʼ, borrowing the same vocal arrangement (in fact, I'm almost sure Bob could sue if he wanted to), but with less attractive lyrics, less intricate musical texture, and set at an even slower tempo. And the worst thing about it is, it does not cast a magic spell. It simply feels too obvious, and Cass' vocals have become so sweet and smooth by now, you could almost mistake him for James friggin' Taylor — who needs it?
The whole record is a collection of similar lullabies, some of them crossing the seven minute border: ʽMemory's Stainʼ is a particular offender, being also set to waltz tempo and eventually just settling down into a snail-paced ambient instrumental, where a piano and a bass clarinet duet with each other in some parallel universe where five seconds of their time is one minute in ours. And wherever you go, you find McCombs singing in the same quiet, semi-whispered manner, intentionally avoiding anything that could be construed as emotional sharpness. This could be legit if the songs weren't so lazy — but McCombs is not a great composer, and all of these chord sequences you've already heard millions of times before, and now that he is focused on keeping his arrangements as sparse as possible, always centered around a simplistic piano or acoustic guitar part... really, whenever this album is at its worst (and that happens quite often), it is simply impossible to treat it as anything more than background ambience.
I count exactly two songs here that I wouldn't mind hearing again. The opener, ʽCounty Lineʼ, shares the typical flaws of the album — slow, lethargic, criminally underarranged — but, perhaps by accident, it falls upon a great descending chord change right at the beginning: "on my way to you, old county", he sings, and then plunges downwards: "...hoping nothing's changed", with an air of bleakness and a sense of black depth from which you know that everything's changed, and few of it for the better. Later on, he continues adding great touches to the performance, using all of his typical range tricks, from baritone to falsetto, and that proverbial heart-tug is there all right. Alas, the next six songs have absolutely none of that — and in order to get to the album's second relative success, you have to allow for a 30-minute nap on the couch.
That second relative success is once again Dylan-related, because it's sort of an attempt to create his own equivalent of ʽDesolation Rowʼ. Yes, you guessed right: the song goes on for almost 10 minutes (and wouldn't you know it, it's another waltz!), with eight verses (should be ten — the Dylan song has ten), each of which ends with the declamation of the song's title, ʽA Knock Upon The Doorʼ. The lyrics are just as impenetrable (maybe even more impenetrable), but there's some sense of humor here, and a whiff of intrigue and mystery as opposed to nothing but somnambulance on the previous six songs. Needless to say, the 10-minute length is still excruciating for such simplicity and such slowness, and it is all the more frustrating when you think that, had he only brought back the multi-layered baroque arrangements of A, he might have totally gotten away with it (remember that with Dylan, for instance, much of the saving grace of ʽSad-Eyed Lady Of The Lowlandsʼ was provided by the energetic and dense backing band). Still, perhaps it is precisely the song length that at least makes certain there's some impression of the song back in your head once the album is over.
On the whole, how could I defend this? It's almost as if the guy got so totally self-confident, he now believes that an album without interesting melodies, without creative and complex arrangements, with intentionally lazy singing, with ridiculously outstretched song lengths, and with arrogantly obvious Dylanisms will suffice to get fan support and rave reviews in the indie press (and it did: "the enigmatic singer-songwriter returns with a dark set of songs backed by spare instrumentation and crafts what might be his best LP yet" — our friends from PitchforkMedia), mostly centered around the lyrics and their sad sad sad tales of loneliness, depression, and nostalgia. And hey, I love sad sad sad tales of loneliness, depression, and nostalgia, but goddammit, there's so many of them on the market already... and just as we'd finally found a guy who could seemingly tell them in a fresh, unconventional manner, he goes all lazy and generic on us. And no, scattered lyrical references to Abelard, Admiral Byrd, and Memphis-huckster-Hitler-hustler do not really count as redemptive factors, so a thumbs down it is. Talk about a self-referential LP title — what a bummer.