By all accounts, Cass McCombs is not a very happy person. If the music you make directly relates to your own mental state, then depression appears to be a prominent part of McCombs’s life. Not everybody is happy all the time, nor does it make logical sense for them to be, but some people find it tough to even force a smile even on the nicest of days. It’s probably a big reason why the use of anti-depression meds are sharply on the rise, particularly in recent years. Despite this, living in a state of consistent melancholy can prove to be beneficial for many creative types, spurning them to make emotionally significant pieces of art that strike a nerve with the masses. Elliott Smith is one of the most prominent purveyors of sad sack music, and his acoustic ballads continue to draw in new fans every year despite his unfortunate death in 2003. McCombs bears a lot of similarities to Smith from a thematic perspective, along with your Nick Drakes and your Leonard Cohens, exploring the darker recesses of the mind with melodies that are simple but lyrics that are not. He scored big with 2009’s “Catacombs”, a record that stripped away most of the arrangements of his past records in favor of a much more direct approach. At that time though, his lyrics suggested at least some modicum of happiness and romanticism. Songs like “Dreams Come True Girl” and the waltzy “You Saved My Life” were heartfelt and warm, finding a comfort zone for him after three decent but not overwhelmingly great records. Now he’s back with his fifth album “Wit’s End”, and while the instrumental template remains the same, emotionally it’s as the title itself describes.
The opening track and first single on “Wit’s End” is “County Line”, a song that essentially flips the love-stricken vibe of “Catacombs” on its head. Instead of being about falling in love or being in love, it’s about the frustration of loving someone and not receiving love in return. Another, more literal way of interpreting the lyrics is to say it’s a tragic song about a town that has succumbed to the wrong kind of element, be it drug addiction (as shown in the song’s video) or urbanization or crime in general. Whatever the intention, the song isn’t lighthearted or positive in any way, even if there’s just a touch of warmth that might as well be left over from the last album. It’s almost enough to say that “The Lonely Doll”‘s title speaks for itself, but what you can’t grasp is just how deceptively innocent the melody sounds. There’s a delicately struck xylophone that adds an almost child-like wonder to the song, almost as if to soundtrack a little girl playing in her sun-soaked room with her Barbie. Precious, yes, but there’s also sadness and tears among the lyrics about being alone and not having anyone in your life to genuinely count on. The pain of loneliness appears to be the overarching theme of the album itself, to the point where McCombs has openly stated as much in interviews. Though there is a prevailing darkness and depression across the record, one of the better and more fascinating things “Wit’s End” does is examine the concept rather than wallow in it. Doing so doesn’t exactly make this a cheerier affair, but it does separate it from the plethora of other, more similarly-minded releases.
One of the most engaging moments on the album comes courtesy of album centerpiece “Memory Stain”. Starting as a rather minimal piano ballad, as it plods with an almost classical flair over the course of 7+ minutes there’s a wealth of other instruments that slowly weave themselves into the song’s fabric. The clarinet is particularly effective, but a light dose of harpsichord and some castanets do a lot towards truly evoking the sadness of those memories you wish you could erase but like a bad clothing stain just can’t. The oddball percussion on “Hermit’s Cave”, with the snare drum striking loudly at unexpected times helps to keep the listener on their toes as it otherwise simply waltzes along with piano and acoustic guitar as professional dance partners. Album closer “A Knock Upon the Door” is similarly paced, like watching a white-sheeted ghost bob and weave across the moonlit dancefloor of an abandoned mansion. Across more than 9 minutes a litany of instruments come together like some sort of ramshackle symphony that includes a couple of woodwinds (a baroque recorder known as a chalumeau being one of them), an acoustic guitar and a banjo, along with some unconventional percussion in the form of metal lightly tapping upon metal. The eerie feeling it nails down is one that had only crept through the rest of the record until that point. After so many songs about loneliness, this haunting closer is the final push, appearing to imply that the hope of company or companionship may remain unfulfilled and the only things left willing to spend time with us are the spirits of those we have lost. It is the end of the classic film “Citizen Kane”, where the immensely wealthy Charles Foster Kane wanders through his empty mansion alone – a man with more money than he knew what to do with, but no friends or family left to share it with. What good is anything in life if you’re just going to keep it to yourself? In that regard, “Wit’s End” also teaches us a lesson about people, relationships and selfishness. But that meaning is only there if you want it to be, because in those moments of true desolation where you just wish there was somebody to talk to, this album can be your companion during your dark period. As with many things in life however, it’s no replacement for a real life human being.
Cass McCombs – The Lonely Doll