Nobody is telling Cass McCombs that he should pursue a career in stand-up comedy. One listen to anything off his last couple records will tell you that the guy sounds clinically depressed. He could use a little lightening up. The irony is that some of our best comedians are severely depressed individuals. They use humor as a coping and defense mechanism, an escape from their otherwise dark lives, be it an abusive parent or navigating schoolyard politics. If somebody makes you laugh you’re less inclined to want to attack them verbally or physically. There’s also a sense of escapism in comedy, because the time spent performing makes you feel validated and appreciated. Watch the very darkly funny TV show “Louie” and you’ll get a great idea of how there’s depth and morbidity behind so much of what we laugh at. Cass McCombs is by no means music’s answer to Louis C.K., but some of his songs are intended to have undercurrents of comedy to them in spite of their pitch black outlook. Even by titling his album “WIT’S END” earlier this year the intention was not to evoke frustration, as it fits into the common phrase “I’m at my wit’s end”. He meant it more in a literal sense, as in the end of wit. Naturally, there was nothing funny about it (or so it would seem). A mere few months later however, McCombs is arguably in a different mood. As a companion piece to that, he’s now putting out his second long player of 2011, this one titled “Humor Risk”. It’s by no means a barrel of laughs, but if you can comprehend a whole lot of subtle witticisms, there are a fair number of moments on this album that will make you smile.
“Love Thine Enemy” is “Humor Risk”‘s opening track, and it examines the titular Biblical sentiment from a realist’s standpoint. “Love thine enemy but hate the lack of sincerity,” McCombs intones. Hopefully you’re able to grasp the funny part of that line, showing off how we may do what we’re told in spite of a strong distaste for it. Elsewhere McCombs has a little fun as part of a rather dark tale involving a drug smuggling operation run through the postal service on “Mystery Mail”. After seeing police descend on his house as he was returning home, the main character goes on the run only to have “the smirk is wiped from my smile/I was arrested for hopping a turnstile”. Upon being sent to prison, he contacts his cross-country drug smuggling partner Daniel, who has also been caught. “Daniel was indeed in the lion’s den/not the only lion killer in a California state pen,” McCombs amusingly intones, very much comparing his fate to that of the Biblical saint. He brings that reference back around again minutes later after his friend is killed in prison, singing, “Daniel was a good guy but a saint he ain’t”. Perhaps the most weirdly amusing track on the record though is “Meet Me at the Mannequin Gallery”, in which the main character seeks to get a mannequin made in his image, and is told a philosophical story by the gallery secretary intoning that not everybody has the distinctive features required to make a good mannequin. It’s a very WTF topic to spend a song on, but it does make for a great demonstration of how not every song needs to be an all-out pity party.
One of the kindest things you could say about “WIT’S END” was how thematically sound it was. That record may have been dark and depressing and slow, but the tone very much matched up and held steady from start to finish. “Humor Risk” runs more of the stylistic gamut. The balance between more uptempo numbers and somber folk songs works well enough here, even when the lyrics don’t always match up. “The Same Thing” is a sunnier acoustic melody, but it examines the dichotomy between love and pain, arguing that such differences are essentially nonexistent. Meanwhile the nearly 8 minutes of “Mystery Mail” is markedly upbeat rock and roll for a song that’s all about drugs, prison and death. Then again, those same topics and rocking melodies worked wonders for Johnny Cash. When you reach a slice of heavy depression like “To Every Man His Chimera”, it may feel like it belongs on the last record, but McCombs’s completely over-the-top vocal performance provides a sly wink against the uber-serious grain.
The grand point of course is that while a number of these new songs aren’t the epitome of lighthearted humor, even some of the more depressing moments are punctuated with energy and playfulness that makes them much more instantly likable. In that way this record also serves as a nice counterpoint to “WIT’S END”, though they’re not complete opposites of one another. This is the easier record to digest, actually perhaps the most normal and commercially viable McCombs has ever gotten over his six previous records. Yet the pleasantries and morbid rib ticklers also vary enough to make them seem like a piecemeal collection rather than a cohesive whole. The songs on “Humor Risk” were recorded in a number of locations around the country, part of the same sessions that yielded “WIT’S END”. This is far better than a b-sides or outtakes collection and none of these songs miss their mark by much, but there’s no real anchor holding the whole thing together. It’s freeing while simultaneously a little disappointing and difficult to engage with given McCombs’s past material. Hopefully next time he can get the balance just right. If he needs some help with that, perhaps he should call Morrissey. I hear that guy has a regular stand-up gig at the morgue.
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