There was a moment there, in the ’70s, when Van Morrison seemed to have completely unraveled. Take Veedon Fleece, or the bulk of St. Dominic’s Preview — those records were so unsettled, so wandering, so freshly wounded that they are both revelatory and sometimes terribly difficult to listen to. I mention that moment in Morrison’s career here because Cass McCombs seems to use that particular incantation of the Irish singer-songwriter as some kind of spirit animal on Wit’s End. This, too, is a record that unravels, that deliberately loses itself in the darkness, and drags us in with it. This isn’t a dark night of the soul, unless you’re talking about when you’re way up in the uninhabited north and it is night for days and days at a time. Then, sure. But if Morrison was a broken man on fire, McCombs is more troubling because he’s so damned quiet. He’s not on fire, but woozy with smoke inhalation.
If that makes the album sound difficult, that’s because it is — but also it’s not. It’s insistently quiet, one of the quietest records front to back you’re likely to ever hear, but McCombs’ threadbare brand of Americana is stretching out in compelling, tuneful ways here. So even if the emotions are heavy, and their delivery cracked and strained, the songs are still often just as melodically arresting as they are thematically troubling. At their most wandering, the songs sometimes lose the thread — or tangle it into some unrecognizable knot — but they always find more fruitful ground the further they drift out into the dark.
Opener “County Line” may be McCombs’s best song to date. It’s a moody and spacious soul tune, groaning with airy keys as McCombs wanders lost on the road. “I feel so blind I can’t make out the passing road signs”, he pines, as someone — someone he loves but is losing — begs him to keep driving, to not take his bearings, to just cross that line. As beautiful as it is, the song carries a fitting layer of road-wear, and that fatigue is like a fog around the rest of the record.
The repetition of these songs seems to be out of necessity, as if they’re just pressing on, trying to stay on their feet by constantly returning to familiar sounds. “The Lonely Doll” hangs on a trudging waltz, but returns to that title phrase every few lines. “Buried Alive” — a fittingly deeper descent following 2009’s Catacombs — does the same thing, McCombs sighing out those two words over and over again with a disconcerting mix of heartache and resignation.
Everything here blurs at the edges as these songs descend into isolation. Wit’s End, as its title implies, leaves all the trappings of mindfulness behind, because here they seem so much like traps. Time, endless thought, other people milling about — it all gets left behind to root through undiscovered, and in some ways undirected, feeling. The music reflects that unending search through the first half of the record. Guitars echo back upon themselves, notes on the keyboard absorb each other and swell to a formless size. For all its isolation, this stuff is constantly stretching out. Until you get to “Memory’s Stain”. Perhaps the album’s darkest moment — “It’s easy to brand a calf”, is just one shiver-inducing whisper here — it also has the most defined playing. McCombs is on the piano at the beginning, and his playing is controlled, even downright stately. Defined notes cut through the hefty silence that surrounds this whole record. It calls us to attention, shakes us from the dream, but for only a few minutes. As the song moves on it devolves and unravels like everything else, so we’re left with only a slurring coda of horns once McCombs’ voice trails off.
It is that voice, though, that ends up behind the unifier on this record. For all the drifting we see here, all the twisting lyrics and wandering through these moody tracks, each inflection Cass McCombs hits us with is controlled. His success here comes in knowing how to poke at us with just the slightest change in inflection, and how to use the subtle range of his voice to his advantage. As difficult as this record is to listen to — it is certainly one of those records you’ll need to be in the mood for — McCombs gives us just enough hope to press on. Check out the insistent rising of his voice on the otherwise bleak “Saturday Song” or the bittersweet beauty of his falsetto on “County Line”. Total darkness, and its companion hopelessness, can’t convey that kind of vital sound.
The album ends with its most curious song, the nine-minute-plus “A Knock Upon the Door”. It’s got the most precise instrumentation of the record, that all-encompassing silence unable to obscure it like a fog. It’s a conversation between musician and muse on those human trappings he’s worried over — sex, mortality, etc. — but its ending is what makes it stand out. As people in the song wait for relief, they’re left with possibility in the end. “Blessed day is near, and soon they’ll here a knock upon the door”, and almost as soon as he’s said it, the song and album cuts out. No drifting outro, no haunting horns, just definitive silence.
Wit’s End for all its seeming aimlessness finds something close to peace, a comforting stillness that brings it all to a halt. Of course, after all the isolation of the record, it’s hard to tell if the knock will be answered or if these voices will just stay holed up with all their fresh feelings. Either way, McCombs has constructed a difficult and wandering album, an album of beautifully hushed insistence that finds its only logical conclusion. It will make you work to get there with it, maybe more than you want to at times, but you can discover quite a bit while allowing yourself to get lost like this.