There comes a time in the maturation process of any great artist when that artist realizes that most of the time, less is more. For Cass McCombs, WIT’S END is that moment. On the record, the fifth full-length from the Los Angeles-based singer-songwriter, McCombs drastically changes his songwriting approach, ditching the more conventional rootsy folk tunes of his past in favor of a pared-down, minimalist approach. On his website, McCombs claims that this album reaches “deeper into the catacombs” into “a world of darkness and total feeling.” The end result is an album with one absolutely essential track and seven other dark, suffocatingly intense ballads that may be meaningful to the artist but ultimately aren’t all that listenable.
Let’s just get this out of the way: “County Line,” the record’s first track, is a perfect piece of music, God’s gift to those lonesome souls driving down back roads in the dark, beer-hazy hours of the evening. It’s one of the finest songs written this year. The combination of McCombs’s hushed, aching voice (think a slightly higher-pitched Leonard Cohen) and that smooth, shimmering Fender Rhodes sound is spine-tingling. The song is a good indication of what’s to come, as McCombs incorporates a minimalism both lyrically and musically that is consistent with the rest of the album. He sings of loneliness and heartache and pain, those basic human emotions that have been the bedrock for American music throughout history: “You never even tried to love me / What did I have to do to make you want me,” he sings in a broken falsetto during the chorus of “County Line.” Only problem is, while the other songs on WIT’S END follow the same economical approach, they just aren’t anywhere near as compelling as “County Line” (with the possible exception of “A Knock Upon the Door,” the album’s haunting finale that features an oddball symphony of banjo, bass clarinet, organ, found sound percussion, and other unidentifiable instruments). Apart from “The Lonely Doll,” which stands out only because of its somewhat annoying repetition of the title phrase after each rhyming couplet, the songs on WIT’S END are all a bit indistinguishable from one another. The pace of the album never rises above a crawl; these are slow, plodding songs, many of which exceed the five-minute mark but never build up to anything. WIT’S END is an album that takes patience, and while “A Knock upon the Door” leaves a better taste in the listener’s mouth by the album’s conclusion, the payoff just isn’t there.
McCombs cannot be faulted for attempting something new on this record, and certainly the lack of clutter and overall sparseness does allow his brilliant lyrics, which combine humor and hurt so well, to shine through. For instance, in “Memory Stain,” McCombs likens personal loss to the degradation of a favorite sweater: “Look now, our thrift store sweater pulled over you / Look now, how wide are the holes!” WIT’S END is full of similarly witty, often brilliant lines. He uses archaic verbiage, yet most of the time it doesn’t come off as affected or pretentious. One gets the sense that this is an artist who seems himself as a poet first and a musician second (McCombs allegedly wrote five albums worth of lyrics before laying down a single note of music for the record). Unfortunately, this is quite evident on WIT’S END, a record that is perhaps McCombs’s great artistic statement, yet is a step back in terms of strength of songs. Apart from “County Line,” which is a bona fide gem, the “less is more” ideal McCombs seems to be aiming for makes WIT’S END a difficult listen.
Rating:Written by Joshua Cole [itunes link="http://itunes.apple.com/us/album/county-line/id425525730?uo=4" title="WIT'S END on iTunes" text="WIT'S END on iTunes"] WIT’S END on Amazon