While flipping through the liner notes of the latest release by singer and songwriter Cass McCombs, one immediately notices two things.
First, the album’s lyrics are printed twice – once in English and again in German. Since McCombs himself was born in California and his surname is of Scottish descent, the reason behind this dual listing is unknown.
Secondly, throughout the booklet there are pictures of distorted figures and animals. Though at times appearing grotesque, these creatures are also unique in their disfigurement – like a misshapen bird’s red body shown flying without a head or a yellowish man whose midsection more closely resembles a collection of scraps culled from the bottom of the ocean than it does a human form.
Alas, those looking for the stories behind these mysterious observations in the record’s music will be sorely disappointed. And that’s just the way McCombs likes his audience – intrigued but ultimately confused.
Musically what this means is a collection of songs featuring dense arrangements that, despite using simple words retain their ambiguity even upon dozens of repeat listens.
For example, album opener and first single “County Line” includes numerous lines about coming home and the sights one sees. But the heartache that comes with such a return is only alluded to, as is the inspiration for the leaving in the first place.
Elsewhere, standout number “The Lonely Doll” tells the bittersweet story of a girl and the drunk who loves her, but does so with incredible delicacy over the hushed sounds of a celeste and Hammond B3 organ.
Watch the video for “County Line” here:
Indeed many tracks on Wit’s End retain an almost lullaby-like quality with soft repetition and instruments used to heighten the hypnotic nature of the work.
Take for instance the finale “A Knock Upon the Door.” Stretching out over nine minutes, the song features such varied sounds as a chalumeau, banjo, portative organ, miniature acoustic guitar and even the percussive ‘knock’ of the title.
Though at times the rhymes within the song feel a bit forced (“The tired minstrel, leaving town, heard the Muse’s weeping / He turned up the Elvis tape is his grey car, creeping”), as a musical journey the piece is gateway to another world.
And apparently it’s a world McCombs knows well, as he described his music in a letter to the website Stereogum, “I made this because this is what I make, that’s Folk, and it’s about people I know and how we’re living. It comes from the heart and it’s not intended to be sold, it’s just intended to be traded, like a Dead tape.”
Plus he added, “I know people get lonely because I do, so that’s what I end up writing songs about, how you get lonely sometimes and come up with these big ideas that give you meaning for a second but then leave you like everything else leaves you.”
Depressing? Maybe. But also art. And to hear McCombs say it, art done for the right reasons.
“Money,” he concludes. “Is bullshit.”
Cass McCombs with openers Lower Dens perform July 19, 7 p.m., $12-14, Iron Horse Music Hall, 20 Center St., Northampton, (413) 586-8686, http://www.iheg.com. For more information on Cass McCombs or to see future tour dates please visit http://www.cassmccombs.com.
Also, don’t forget to follow the Northeast Underground on Twitter @NE_Underground. And check out concert footage featuring artists like Dinosaur Jr., Garland Jeffreys, and more on the Underground’s official YouTube page.