[21 October 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Cass McCombs is a private, relatively unknowable musician. You have his music—which itself is evasive in its uses of deep melancholy streaked with humor, in the ways in which it shifts shape from album to album—but it doesn’t tell you much about him. It’s a curious stance in these days of open-source lifestyle, but McCombs stands as an interesting lesson: albums won’t necessarily tell us about their creators, and they don’t need to if they wish to be revealing.
Case in point is McCombs latest (and giant) record, Big Wheel and Others. The massive set runs nearly 80 minutes and covers 22 tracks. Yet, like so many large albums, this one gives up no clear path to travel. It’s not a concept album. It’s not even a sonically or texturally consistent album. This, instead, is the sound of throwing everything at the wall and having it all stick. It’s an album that does a lot of things from moment to moment, that makes deliberate shifts, and yet those shifts don’t add up. The set is fascinating simply because it is, perhaps like its creator, inexplicable.
There are noticeable threads—or perhaps dotted lines—that appear on the record. “Big Wheel” is a take on the trucker tune, a thumping, dusty, country-funk number about a principled man wandering the highways and byways. It twists the masculine figure in clever ways (“man with a man how much more manly can you get?”) but mostly plays to the trope. “Joe Murder” combines both psych-rock expanse and mystical killer ballad. “Sooner Cheat Death Than Fool Love” is a gambler’s tune, the kind full on lonesome heartbreak and living on some kind of romanticized edge. McCombs even tempers the hard livin’ of these songs with the playful fire-and-brimstone romp of “Satan is My Toy”.
The focus on lonely ramblers isn’t surprising here, nor is the eccentricity of these songs. The airtight band behind McCombs though, is what drives the best stuff here. They fill out standout “Morningstar” with swampy percussion and drifting keys and wind instruments. “Joe Murder” is a rumbling force of bass and rippling guitar work. Songs like “There Can Be Only One” is layered with tangles of AM-gold guitars blooming out of the bone-dry thump of the drums. “Home on the Range”, cornball name aside, is a spacious, moody piece, with guitars calling and responding to each other over these songs, which McCombs insist “I’m going west where I belong,” while those instruments hint at the space between him and his destination.
Destinations are far off for these narrators, but so it is for this album. If it seems too big, too eager to keep you guessing, too eager to avoid anything remotely close to consistency, it still doesn’t suffer from these stubborn traits. In fact, McCombs presents maybe the most charming version of his wanderer on this album, where the wandering is through musical worlds, worlds that are rooted in tradition but change their parameters from song to song. We work our way through a huge glut of lush and deeply layered songs, and end nicely on the solitary folk-blues of “Unearthed”, a quiet moment, a moment of stillness to close an album always on the move.
That last moment is the only one that really hints at any deliberate structure on this album. There are other non-musical conceits that seek to give it shape, but don’t really work. We hear three snippets from an interview with a small child in which the kid claims to smoke grass, hate cops, and other anti-establishment adult activities. On an album so effortlessly shapeless, these moments feel scripted, forced, and needless. Some of the songs that push too much at established tropes—“Satan is My Toy” in particular—upset the album as well, feeling like a kind of weirdness that is trying too hard. The better moments here subtly disguise the eccentricity, or let it sneak up on us, like on the otherwise loveworn “Morningstar” in which McCombs asks the title subject, “What’s it like to shit in space?”
There are plenty of those moments, strange and lasting, to make Big Wheel and Others another solid record from McCombs. There are moments that fall apart here, but the failing is never of this big, wandering kind of record. The structure, or lack thereof, is another interesting turn in McCombs glimpses into what we can learn from the unknowable, what we can glean from the parts of an incongruent whole. It’s some of the parts, the ones that seek to rise above that whole though parlour tricks or overwrought strangeness, that feel too long, even as the running time of the record as a whole, seems to glide by.