Cass McCombs is as prolific as he is stylistically versatile. On his 9th studio album in less than the nearly two-decades of his career, Tip Of The Sphere (out February 8th via ANTI-), he shifts in and out of Americana, rebirthing himself now in psychedelic rock, now in alt-country; but each of the eleven tracks are colored by a distinct cynicism. “Welcome to coo coo land / Home of the fake”; his character in “Sleeping Volcanoes” begs for the help of Armageddon personified. Much of the album is masking his disembodied, often misanthropic lyrics behind warm guitar tones and the assurance that he, too, is down in the mud, though for what? The endless sphere of reincarnation and cultural and familiar legacy, dirtied with age and use—is it worth hanging on to? He asks and explores answers in asking.
The personas through which McCombs’ speaks share the ruggedness of the album’s sonics—the beggar in opener “I Followed The River South To What”; the fireside-storytelling highwayman in “The Great Pixley Train Robbery; the enigmatic dialect in “Rounders”; the ghostly walker in “Sidewalk Bop After Suicide,” drifting unnoticed through a full, familiar world he suddenly realizes is empty. “Tying Up Loose Ends” has the narrator going through unfamiliar family photos, calling into question identity and the thickness of bloodlines. The record feels much too jaded to fall prey to tropes like the country twang or the rock n’ roll howl. No, McCombs uses and abuses Americana in a softer, reflective voice: “I want to live in a magic mirror… in a day like today / But not today” (“Prayer For Another Day”). If Father John Misty were rooted in the heartland, this would be the result.
The lyrics are unabashedly beatnik, which fits well with the psychedelic, hippie- movement sound he often takes, like the elongated, Jerry Garcia-esque jams that bookend the album. Only once does the veil of irony peel back too far, in the spoken-word “American Canyon Sutra”, painting a Wal-Mart produced, white-washed, bulky “sacred American trash”, a “bottomless canyon of nightmares” we are complacently falling into. Yikes. The bitter, half-assed drum machines overexert its preachiness and misses the more nuanced way McCombs handles the rest of the record.
Of course, all of McCombs cautionary lyricism would be too raw without the lush production an instrumentation, which spares nothing like the Indian tabla drum in the George Harrison-trip “Real Life”, or the rich mixture of saxophone, harmonica, and synths on the disoriented “Tying Up Loose Ends”. There’s a dense mix of five or six disparate melodies and rhythms happening at almost all times—the bass grooves especially impress front-to-back. And yet it’s never the wailing guitar, banner-waving tirade you may American rock’s alumni. It’s too rich to be understated in any manner, but careful enough to only very rarely become ham-fisted.
Tip Of The Sphere is a dense album with a lot to say about the American Ouroboros, eating and recycling itself to no end. If McCombs’ mythos sounds hopeless or tired in his incredibly dark lyrics, it doesn’t show in the album’s vibrancy and diverse sound. And yet, I got the biggest rush from what was being said. Standout tracks for me include “Suicide Bop After Suicide”, “Sleeping Volcanoes”, and “Prayer For Another Day”.
review by Matthew Wardell