CASS McCOMBS: MANGY LOVE (2016)
1) Bum Bum Bum; 2) Rancid Girl; 3) Laughter Is The Best Medicine; 4) Opposite House; 5) Medusa's Outhouse; 6) Low Flyin' Bird; 7) Cry; 8) Run Sister Run; 9) In A Chinese Alley; 10) It; 11) Switch; 12) I'm A Shoe.
Still padded to some extent, but on the whole, Mangy Love is probably the single most coherent and straightforward body of depressed pop songs in McCombs' entire career so far. The most striking thing about it is how evenly balanced it is — not too fast, not too slow, not too hooky, not too hookless, not too ravaging, not too lethargic, not too lyrically obscure, not too verbally simplistic. Under different circumstances, this might have meant a very boring, ordinary, white-noise-like experience. But Cass spent so much time trying to «distinguish» himself with rub-it-in-yer-face minimalistic gimmicks that it all sounds good now. It's like a, «what, you mean there's not a single eight-minute long, two-chord wide, totally lyric-oriented ballad on the album? Oh, blessed be the ways of the Lord!»
There's plenty of darkness, for sure, but darkness is hardly a gimmick in an era where more and more people begin to realize that darkness never really went away, it simply camouflaged itself for a while. The first song on Mangy Love is about unstoppable bloodshed; the last song is about getting out of this place and lying low; and in between are ten more odes to depression, repression, oppression, and suppression. (I think that ʽSwitchʼ is the sole attempt to write something a little more cheerful, like an homage to romantic Eighties' pop à la Duran Duran, but in the context of the album, even that song feels dark and cold). Since, as usual, the arrangements are quite low-key, and the lyrics require an almost philological degree of analysis to be decrypted, there is no chance whatsoever of mass success, but at least he won't be pissing off people with low attention spans for repetitive simplicity masked as poignant art.
Genre-wise, he still hops from one corner to another. We have some rough, distorted blues-rock (ʽRancid Girlʼ, with a nasty Seventies-style distorted riff and oddly retro-stylized misogynistic lyrics); an attempt to put bossa nova rhythmics at the service of political paranoia and aggravation (ʽRun Sister Runʼ — this one, on the contrary, contains explicit feminist elements, culminating in "between me and my brother stands our sister, don't shoot!"); what sounds like a bona fide tribute to the classic Smiths sound (ʽIn A Chinese Alleyʼ — the only thing missing is Cass adopting the vocal mannerisms of Morrissey); and a lite-jazz / folk-rock hybrid with arguably the loveliest vocal melody on the whole album — ʽLow Flyin' Birdʼ has a gorgeous chorus that has me wondering, again and again, why McCombs does not resort to that falsetto more often.
In a way, the record feels like a short musical summary of several distinct styles popular in the late Seventies and early Eighties — on one song he sounds like a jaded, sold-out prog-rocker trying to survive in a new world, then on the next one he sounds like a young aspiring musician trying to take an active part in the dance or synth-pop revolution. Actually, the first description probably applies to more songs here than the second one: much of Mangy Love gives me the same intuitive impression as late-period albums from bands like Camel or Caravan, tiptoeing on one foot across the border of miserably empathetic and smoothly boring. The saving grace is that Cass really bothers about his hooks this time: almost every song has something to offer in the area of vocal hooks, even dance-pop numbers such as ʽCryʼ and ʽSwitchʼ.
The main problem, however, never goes away: the album clearly wants to make a big statement, but there seems to be no other way to make it than run it through some complex cloaking mechanism that makes protest songs into invisible protest songs and anthems into un-anthems. A song like ʽItʼ, for instance, is slow, ponderous, employs big gospel-like vocal harmonies, and even opens with lines that come dangerously close to clichés (at least, by McCombs' own standards): "It is not wealth / To have more than others / It is not peace / When others are in pain" (DUH). But if it is an anthem, and if it seems to be directed at arousing our emotions and empathies, why the hell is it so lethargic? Why are the main vocals sung as if he were dictating a paper to his secretary? Where are the bombastic guitar breaks? Why does the gospel choir never ever come out of the shadow? It's a good, melodic piece that would not have lost any of its charm if it were a little... you know... amplified. As it is, it is not likely to replace George Harrison's ʽIsn't It A Pityʼ in my «Cry For The World» playlist any time soon.
Nevertheless, it, and the rest of it, is good enough to warrant a thumbs up from me — I'd really go as far as to say that it is his second best album of all time, though still a far cry from the stroke of luck that was A. Apparently, as long as he stays away from the temptation to keep on pulling off a 21st century Dylan, and remains content to pull a 21st century mix of Andy Latimer and Morrissey, it'll work.