You might have trouble getting a handle on Cass McCombs. He’s intentionally oblique, in real life as in his lyrics, even saying, “I don’t actually want my biography to contain much in the way of actual biographical information.” Whether he’ll eventually turn around, Dylan-like, remains to be seen, but for now, he sounds pleased—and pleasing—as an obscurantist.
Which isn’t to imply that you can’t understand McCombs’s songs. It’s just that you won’t be able to explain what they’re about so much as you are able to feel them. On PREfection, McCombs’s second full-length album, that sense of being lost in his words starts immediately with opener “Equinox”. The song speaks of “Catherine de Medici” and, apparently, events in the court of Fontaineblleu that occured 500 years ago. The lyrics refuse to clarify the proceedings, though, speaking in terms as vague as the related prophecies of Nostradamus. McCombs sings, “Silverfish quilting testicle / Despotic owl conducts the wolves / And mulls attacking a fox”. Sure, that could be about Catholics and Huguenots, but it could just as likely be about, well, anything else.
That type of writing—more characteristic than extreme in McCombs’s style—stands as both the strength and the weakness of the album. At his finest, McCombs creates impressionistic imagery, or even daft symbolism, that evokes a gloomy scene even while injecting humor. In “Bury Mary”, McCombs uses his uncertain language to create a tension around the narrator. The act of burying could mean several things: literal burying of a lost love, a figurative burying of feelings toward an unresponsive beloved, or a literal burying of a murder victim. Our narrator’s clearly unhinged, but any of those options could lead to a loss of mental balance.
At his worst, however, McCombs blurts lyrics that cause too much confusion to allow his emotional suggestions to develop any continuity. “Equinox” provides the best example, but these moments sporadically occur throughout the album. In “Subtraction”, we hear, “The skull returns, taking flight / Ascending without chest and without sound”. Perhaps a serious investment in explication could bring some meaning to light, but McCombs interest doesn’t seem to lie with literal explanations.
His interst on PREfection does lead to a more rock-oriented sound than on his debut album A. On that first album, he kept to a fairly slow and steady tempo and a consistent instrumenation. He changes things up a bit with this disc, alternating slow and fast songs, throwing in sharp electric guitars, and varying the tone of his voice. Despite the changes, the album maintains a consistent feel throughout, although it could be enhanced by some cleaner production work.
If it’s the music that keeps you listening, you begin to find rewards in the lyrics. For one, you begin to notice a unity of concept on the disc. If “Equinox” contains unspoken violence (including just a few degrees to the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre), “Subtraction” follows with a hint that murder awaits, and “Multiple Suns” makes it clear: “Now you ask me, ‘why so many suns?’ / One for each murder me and my angel done”. With this theme developing, we get a little more hint of what might have happened to Mary, even if we lack a why. Is the fact that subtraction is “my duty and passion” enough? Maybe, because McCombs later explains, “Quite literally, you’re insane”.
McCombs, obliquely, has been developing his themes of murder, suffering, and insanity, enabling us—especially as we pick up the religious references—to start to make sense of the album title. With murder and spiritual doubt or heresy on the rise, no wonder we religious or legal administration, and with Catherine de Medici on the loose, no wonder we need to call in the French police.
When it pulls together, PREfection does come off as a smart album, but that doesn’t mean it’s always affective. The strained lyrics and obscure thought can block emotional connection. That’s not always a bad thing, but McCombs invites us in musically, then holds us at arm’s length, then makes bold declarations that encourage further investigation. The album turns into a game of sorts, a fun one to play, but not one that guarantees reward, intellectually or emotionally. Sometimes, though, it’s that very lack of initial recompense that pays off later.