The most immediate and striking aspect of Andrew Combs‘ fifth album is just how sparse the recording sounds. That’s not because of the lack of instrumentation. Combs’ singing and guitar playing are abetted by other performers on guitars, drums, keyboards, and even a woodwind ensemble. Sundays was recorded entirely in mono and gave lots of sonic space to each element. One can hear Combs breathing as well as his vocals. Each musical instrument announces its presence in the foreground. They don’t back Combs up as much as accompanying him on his spiritual journey. Sundays suggests Combs is looking for meaning in a meaningless world and finds it by not finding it. Like Albert Camus’s Sisyphus, Combs understands one has no other choice in a world of nothingness.
Combs announces the connection between joy and existential despair in the very first cut. “God still lives on in godlessness,” he sings quietly over a martial beat. There is a sunniness to his desolation as if only by being honest about our situation can we be saved from misery. This theme permeates the 11 tracks on Sundays, whether Combs sings about death, love, or other weighty subjects. He’s not whistling in the dark as much as embracing the night for its possibilities.
Sundays is very different than Combs’ first four records, which presented him as an Americana-style singer-songwriter. The publicity notes that Combs wrote the material “on the heels of a mental breakdown” he experienced during Christmas 2020. As the COVID pandemic dragged on during 2021, Combs would go into the studio every Sunday (hence the album’s name) with collaborators Jordan Lehning (Caitlin Rose, Caroline Spence, Rodney Crowell) and Dominic Billet (Erin Rae, Julia Jacklin, Courtney Marie Andrews) and record the material he had worked on that week. The songs here are heavy, even when the lyrics are delivered in a sunny voice.
Combs turned to transcendental meditation to find peace after his breakdown. The central tenet of this philosophy concerns being alert to the world without consciously focusing. Making this new music was part of the healing process. He learned not to blame God or others for his problems and the world’s evils. His goal was only to witness attentively.
Several of the songs address this idea directly. In “Still Water”, Combs reminds, “You see what you want to see / Then you believe” as one way of avoiding looking at oneself and the world. “Truth and Love is all that is”, he sings in a sunny voice on “Truth and Love”, even as he acknowledges everything else is temporary. “Down With the Dead” is a jaunty number that asks for pity as the music discordantly responds to the death of a child (and us all). We can never understand what it all means, so let go of one’s fears. It’s weighty stuff delivered in an unfussy way. While Combs does not offer us mantras to soothe our souls, the songs function similarly to the chants by keeping the lessons simple and largely without distracting ornamentation.
Perhaps this existential theme is best expressed in the purposely off-key “Drivel to a Dream”. “Find a way to rid of everything,” Combs sings. We can fool ourselves into believing that there are reasons for what exists by finding patterns and shapes and then turning them into false truths because they sound good. Combs advises us to chill. The truth will emerge if we don’t allow ourselves to get in the way.