Cass McCombs: Wit's End

Photo: Paul Valencia

The hushed 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.

Cass McCombs

Wit's End

US Release: 2011-04-26
Label: Domino
UK Release: 2011-04-11
Artist Website
Label Website

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.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less

Multi-tasking on your smart phone consumes too many resources, including memory, and can cause the system to "choke". Imagine what it does to your brain.

In the simplest of terms, Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen's The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World is a book about technology and the distractions that often accompany it. This may not sound like anything earth shattering. A lot of people have written about this subject. Still, this book feels a little different. It's a unique combination of research, data, and observation. Equally important, it doesn't just talk about the problem—it suggests solutions.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.