CASS McCOMBS: A (2003)
1) I Went To The Hospital; 2) Bobby, King Of Boys Town; 3) What Isn't Nature; 4) AIDS In Africa; 5) A Comedian Is Someone Who Tells Jokes; 6) Gee, It's Good To Be Back Home; 7) Meet Me Here At Dawn; 8) When The Bible Was Wrote; 9) My Pilgrim Dear; 10) Bedding Down Post-Xmastime; 11) My Master.
Oh no, not another modern day American singer-songwriter. Having stuck around both the West and the East Coast for several years, and eventually being picked up by some tiny record label in Baltimore or somewhere, and having also had the distinction to be one of the very last discoveries by John Peel before the radio waves went silent, Cass McCombs finally got around to recording his first LP in 2003 — one that he called A, out of humble respect either for a twenty-three year old record by Jethro Tull or the anonymous creator of the Latin alphabet. As far as I understand, nobody even noticed it back at the time. How could they? With a title like that, it'll easily slip through even all the most advanced search engines.
Fortunately, now, in retrospect, we are all entitled to its pleasures, because it does indeed happen to be one of the finest singer-songwriter albums of the year 2003, and maybe even of the entire decade, and, heck, who knows? it's getting darn hard and darner harder for anybody to come out with an amazing singer-songwriter album these days. But somehow, McCombs, with the help of his largely unknown backing team (the only player I know is guitarist Chris Cohen, formerly of Deerhoof), has succeeded in crafting quite a formidable experience. Clearly influenced by several generations of previous songwriters, he has amalgamated many of their strengths, and still managed to put his own scent marks all over the place.
The base magic is simple. McCombs writes «spells» rather than songs: most of these tracks, 3 to 5-6 minutes long in duration, reveal their complete structures very quickly, and then simply spin the same yarn for several cycles — the Dylan/Cohen manner of functioning. Nor is there anything particularly challenging or innovative about these cycles: sometimes it's just one musical / vocal phrase, taken out of the folk / country / pop woodpile, which in most contexts would indicate laziness and lack of talent. But with McCombs, somehow, it is different, and the answer lies not even in the lyrics (honestly, for the first couple of listens I did not even begin paying attention to the actual words), but in the sphere of personality.
First and foremost, the guy's got a beautiful voice. Not as technically accomplished, perhaps, as those of the late great Buckley family, but with a clear, fresh ring vaguely reminiscent of Jeff's, and with an added humorous twinkle of his own, which makes all the difference. The songs range from deeply soulful to ironically playful, but there's a seed of soulfulness in the playfulness and vice versa: he is expressive, he is caring, and he has a sense of humor. Unlike so many broken-hearted songwriters who have threatened to lower the broken heart value to near-dumping levels, McCombs is not whiny or hysterical — if any of these songs could be called manipulative, they are subtly, rather than cheaply so, and the man is able to achieve a great balance between classic starry-eyed romanticism and a modern day attitude without making himself look too pompous or too hyper-intelectually cynical.
The musical arrangements are also subtle, not amazing per se, but working very well to his advantage. Instead of sticking to acoustic guitar or going defiantly lo-fi with noise and sludge, he goes for a loud, but clean electric sound, with wall-of-sound elements, big crashing drums, several guitar parts, old-fashioned organ, and plenty of echo. Oh, and did I mention the slow tempos? Most of the tunes really take their time, sometimes dragging down to a mortally wounded crawl (ʽA Comedian Is Someone Who Tells Jokesʼ), yet it all works out to his complete advantage — on ʽComedianʼ, for instance, it helps him to gain even more power over the listener with lilting arches of vocal modulation; the way he intones that particular title makes me think of the song as the 21st century's ʽDeath Of A Clownʼ, and it might even go deeper than the Dave Davies tune.
No song better illustrates how little do the actual lyrics matter than the closing number, ʽMy Masterʼ — four minutes of simplistic strum and mono-dialog that goes like this, "I heard my Master... spoke with your Master... I wonder what for?.. was it in commerce?.. very odd, isn't it?.. very odd indeed", and on and on and on. It's literally a song about nothing about nothing, but it manages to entrance me for four minutes, like some mystical lullaby where all that matters is the tone of the voice... and, oh, what a perfect tone for a lullaby.
If the album closes with a lullaby (that is as sweet as it is formally meaningless), it opens with a big soulful splash — ʽI Went To The Hospitalʼ is a great way to make your solemn peace with God without saying a single word about this directly. It's a big risk, really, to open your career with such a solemn gesture, but in this case it is more of a risk that none of your subsequent career will match the awesome opening rather than you are going to fall flat on your face with your very first step. Again, you might tear out occasional bits of cool lyrics, like "is it dying that terrified you, or just being dead?", but the song might as well have been wordless — what matters is the wave-form of each verse and how the guy is steering his sonic ship on top of each wave and then gracefully bringing it down. Beautiful.
Almost every song on here works at some level. He may be pleading and vulnerable and doom-sensing (ʽMeet Me Here At Dawnʼ), or he might sound like an Everly brother stuck in a loop and loving it (ʽBobby, King Of Boystownʼ), or he can give the impression of a resigned sage sitting on top of the hill and watching the world go to pieces (ʽAIDS In Africaʼ — much of the song consists simply of chanting its title, as a symbolic representation of everything that went wrong, and it's totally enthralling), or he can slow the tempo even further down to give a chilling portrait of an individual striving to make an emotional difference despite all of his vital systems having ground down to a near-complete halt (ʽBedding Down Post-Xmastimeʼ — that's the way I hear it without delving too deep into the actual lyrics, anyway).
By the end of it all, you probably won't have a clear idea of how all these pieces assemble together in a cohesive portrait; but if you are left unimpressed, or, at least, without a definite understanding that you have just heard something special, just try to keep listening — I cannot guarantee a spiritual connection for everybody, of course, but as far as I'm concerned, this guy's got ten times more spirituality in him than Conor Oberst and Justin Vernon combined, and the fact that the modern world would rather choose those two as their role models than the much less known Cass is... well, it's just one of those facts. The worst thing I can say about A, now, is that the artist would have a hell of a hard time trying to top it in the future, but, naturally, in this particular case it merely translates into an even stronger thumbs up.