Cass McCombs’ sixth full-length Humor Risk and second of this year (Wit’s End being the first) adds to the artist’s decline since reaching his pinnacle with Catacombs in 2009. Northern Californian and all-out rambler, McCombs’ albums tend to conceptually form around a mosaic of stories, each one dirtied by the grit of America. But with the lack of growth since his debut EP in 2002, the music is becoming noticeably weathered.
McCombs claimed there was a comedic thread sewn into his April release Wit’s End and is apparently still slapping his knee about Humor Risk. Admittedly, the joke is lost.
Heavily emotional yet simple songs, not uncommonly held together by only a of couple chord changes, that, in the end, prove to be largely ineffective summarizes nearly all of McCombs’ work. At times, the slow, unchanging melodies can be (deliberately) outright painful. Match this with McCombs’ droning and uninspired lyrics (the quality of which have taken a precipitous drop since Catacombs) like these: “Mystery mail/ I hope this finds you well/ To no avail/ You tip the scale/ Now I’ll see you in Hell.” What?
When McCombs implements a little more distortion and strains his voice, as he does in “Mystery Mail,” he can sound like Jerry Garcia playing alongside The Thermals or Band of Horses, which, if it weren’t for the track’s 8-minutes running-time, would make for a welcome departure from his sleepy, drawn-out Americana. But instead he drives this song into the ground with a lyrical saga.
With McCombs’ vocals bouncing through reverb and chiming guitar in “The Same Thing” (Humor’s strongest track), the song takes the form of indie-pop or, as John Peel would call it, shambling ( Peel also dubbed McCombs “unobtrusively brilliant”). The track periodically shifts into a diverging “Hotel California”-esque bridge that doesn’t follow the predictability or stillness heard on the rest of the album.
McCombs’ wordsmith-ing seems to only do him harm. His lyrics and personal biography take on an affectation that portray McCombs as self-indulgent and, frankly, dumb . On his website, presumably it’s McCombs that describes the album as “an attempt at laughter instead of confusion, chaos instead of morality, or as fellow northern Californian Jack London put it: ‘I would rather be ashes than dust!’”
Laughter and confusion aren’t opposites, and chaos and confusion are often used in the same breath to describe a single event. Generally people have to reach an iconic class built on drug or manic-infused prophesying before they can start combining words in senseless ways that make people introspective (e.g. Charles Manson, Jim Morrison, or cult-leader and another fellow northern Californian, Jim Jones). A person can’t just thrust themselves into this status, it must be earned. And McCombs has a long way to go both musically and in self-imagery before his work can be confused for inspiring or humorous.
Cass McCombs – Humor Risk tracklist:
- “Love Thine Enemy”
- “The Living Word”
- “The Same Thing”
- “To Every Man His Chimera”
- “Robin Egg Blue”
- “Mystery Mail”
- “Meet Me at the Mannequin Gallery”