On the pointedly titled Catacombs, the willfully enigmatic Cass McCombs further seals his status as one of the 21st century’s most gifted and under-appreciated singer-songwriters. By turns direct, circuitous, romantic and sly, Catacombs — like all past McCombs’ albums — is ultimately too strange to find much beyond a niche audience. But listening to it, one gets the feeling that if McCombs would just replace his often bizarre lyrical tropes with trite sentiments, his career could easily take a Ray LaMontagne-like turn.
Melodically, McCombs can hold his own with the very best pop tunesmiths, several of whom he clearly emulates, including Paul McCartney and Paul Simon. In terms of narrative content, however, McCombs is in a weird class of his own. From the unfortunately named “Aids in Africa” from his debut full-length, A, to Catacombs‘ “The Executioner’s Song” — an achingly pretty ballad in which the titular character coos “I love my job” repeatedly — McCombs keeps listeners at arm’s length with lyrics that would be insufferable were they not couched in such beautiful sounds.
Catacombs gets bizarre right out of the gate. The opening track, “Dreams Come True Girl”, is a dreamy, gorgeous little love song, but it’s the coda that smacks you awake. In it, 70-year-old actress Karen Black (Nashville, Easy Rider) comes in with a boozy, age-gnarled croon, giving the otherwise light-as-air song a subtext that’s just a touch creepy, in a Harold and Maude sort of way.
Sonically, the rest of Catacombs continues McCombs’ departure — which began on 2005’s Dropping the Writ — from the noisier, more varied sounds of McCombs’ early recordings. McCombs’ lithe tenor is often accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, while the drummer gets more than his money’s worth from his egg shaker.
The finest songs on the album, though, are those with the most ambitious arrangements. Take “You Saved My Life”, a statement of gratitude to a lover, in which McCombs gets closer than ever to unadulterated earnestness. Over gentle cymbal taps, a tinkling piano, and a softly crying steel guitar, McCombs sings, “Now I see that there’s so much to lose / There’s so much to lose, ’cause you saved my life”. But even here, McCombs can’t help but insert just a hint of quirk, singing the refrain with moving emotional abandon until reaching the words “you saved my”, which he intones in an almost silly, child-like voice. Whether you find such little tricks endearing or distracting will probably determine whether or not you’ll enjoy McCombs’s music in general.
In spite of his reluctance to remove the ironic distance between himself and his listener, McCombs shows plenty of signs of maturation as a songwriter on Catacombs. More than ever, he eschews the first-person for the second, and the arrangements are the most restrained of any McCombs recording yet. Indeed, the criticism most likely to be leveled at Catacombs is that it tends too often to veer into middle-of-the-road, adult-oriented radio territory. And sure, a cursory listen reveals the album to contain no shortage of innocuous Beatles-lite soft pop. But McCombs’ mystique — even if it is, as some suspect, a superficial product of his desire to be perceived as mysterious — helps make these more than just pretty little pop songs. They’re more like pop puzzles.
Catacombs is a flawed album, yes, but were it not for McCombs’s willingness to take the risks that lead to those flaws, he probably would have made an album that even Ray LaMontagne fans would love. And nobody — McCombs, I’m guessing, least of all — wants that.