CASS McCOMBS: BIG WHEEL & OTHERS (2013)
1) Sean I; 2) Big Wheel; 3) Angel Blood; 4) Morning Star; 5) The Burning Of The Temple, 2012; 6) Brighter!; 7) There Can Be Only One; 8) Name Written In Water; 9) Joe Murder; 10) Everything Has To Be Just-So; 11) It Means A Lot To Know You Care; 12) Dealing; 13) Sooner Cheat Death Than Fool Love; 14) Satan Is My Toy; 15) Sean II; 16) Home On The Range; 17) Brighter!; 18) Untitled Spain Song; 19) Sean III; 20) Honesty Is No Excuse; 21) Aeon Of Aquarius Blues; 22) Unearthed.
I wonder if I should or should not go the «ambitious is always good» route here? After all, it is not true that this last decade is completely free of grand, larger-than-thou musical gestures: from Arcade Fire and all the way to Kanye West, people are still trying to bite off more than they can chew, even as natural selection causes their jaws to keep shrinking with each new generation. And after a string of serious musical disappointments, could it be the right decision for Cass McCombs to gamble it all on a sprawling, two-disc collection of twenty songs in half a dozen different musical styles, presenting his own, contemporary mega-take on Americana?..
As usual, the absolute majority of other people's positive opinions that I have seen focus almost exclusively on the lyrics. And they are really good lyrics, yes: the man is now capable even of finding a non-clichéd way to deliver a sermon on the age-old problem of peace, love, and mutual understanding (ʽEverything Has To Be Just-Soʼ), let alone continuing to find fresh metaphors to lay on the age-older problem of him-and-her (ʽSooner Cheat Death Than Fool Loveʼ) or, incidentally, deliver some of the most viciously offensive anti-religious (anti-clerical, to be accurate) chastushkas to come out of the progressive camp (ʽSatan Is My Toyʼ), though you have to listen really carefully to get it. And you have to listen even more carefully, sometimes, to understand if he is using redneck imagery directly and scornfully, or as a metaphor for something completely different altogether (ʽBig Wheelʼ). Anyway, the guy continues to be a good poet...
...but does he continue to be a good musician? That's a far more difficult question. Despite the sprawling length of this collection, it manages to avoid both the unending lethargy of Wit's End and the simplistic repetitive crudeness of Humor Risk. With a couple tolerable exceptions, the songs do not seriously overstay their welcome, run along at steady, energetic rootsy tempos, and occasionally feature vocal and instrumental pop hooks, so it's not really much of a chore sitting through all of this in one go. And, as somewhat inferior, derivative resuscitations of age-honored musical styles, they work all right. ʽBig Wheelʼ will appeal to anybody who'd like to know how Chuck Berry would sound when played by Fairport Convention (but with musicianship that would probably make Richard Thompson cringe). ʽAngel Bloodʼ and a whole bunch of other country-tinged tracks here will warm the heart of all Gram Parsons fans (on the whole, I'd say that Gram Parsons could all but be proclaimed this record's mascot). ʽJoe Murderʼ is Joy Division bleakness peppered with avantgarde sax blasts à la original King Crimson. ʽDealingʼ and a couple more acoustic ballads recycle the old Donovan / ʽDear Prudenceʼ chord sequences... all in all, these reworked influences are okay, and it is clear that Cass is not interested in pushing any boundaries — he just wants himself some tasteful backdrops for his statements.
Which, much as I am trying to fight this, inevitably brings us back to the lyrics and the whole conceptual shenanigan — especially since the album is introduced (and then twice more interrupted) with bits of dialog sampled from the 1969 documentary Sean, a series of dialogs between a filmmaker and a 4-year old kid raised by his hippie parents in Haight-Ashbury (apparently, Cass had been a fan of the documentary for quite a long time, since some of his songs were used for the soundtrack of a follow-up, Following Sean, as early as 2005). Given that the dialog reveals the little boy to be a grass smoker, a police-hater, and a God denier, you could say that Big Wheel & Others revolves around some sort of anti-establishment frame, but Cass is too smart and too hip to come out with any unambiguous judgements... too smart and hip, really, so much so that, ultimately, the record still suffers from a certain emotional vacuum. Is he angry? Is he sad? Is he from another planet? Is he just telling it like it is? Does he agree with Sean on all the philosophical points the boy makes? Does he eat grass, or smoke it? Who knows?
Anyway, I'd be totally wasted if I started waxing philosophical over all these songs, so let's just skip over to the last one — you know, the coda, the finale, the denouement, the unveiling of The Truth, whatever, and hey, it's called ʽUnearthedʼ, so it might really reveal something. What have we got here? Acoustic, slightly lo-fi, slow ballad, "it won't be too long, it won't be too long", so there's some sort of blind prophet apocalypse vibe... "I moved 75 thousand tons of earth with my teeth... I met a toad that belched up a bottle" (this is sung a bit close to the motif of ʽA Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fallʼ), "and in the bottle was a note, a note I knew you wrote... how come you keep your true feelings so well hidden?". Uh... that's it? This is how our long journey ends? This is why I had to sit through nine minutes of ʽEverything Has To Be Just-Soʼ and seven minutes of ʽHome On The Rangeʼ? Boy, what a downer.
The biggest problem with the album is that it is long, it is meandering, it is trying to tell us something important — and it never really seems to understand what it is trying to tell us. It's one of those respectable, but wasted efforts where the smart artist outsmarts himself by focusing too much on his own enigma. On the bright side of things, it is a sort-of-timeless statement that is in no way bound hands-and-feet to the year or decade in which it was released, so who knows? perhaps, in fifty years time or less, critics will dig it out, dust it off, and declare it a major masterpiece that was way ahead of its time, a time when reviewers either praised it without understanding it (like the Pitchfork people) or simply confessed to not understanding it (like yours truly). But my guess is that even fifty years from now, Big Wheel & Others will, at the very best, be one of those albums that everybody tips a hat to for the effort but nobody really listens to because it all kind of seems more impressive on paper than in the air.