Cass McCombs, one of the foremost character architects in the contemporary indie scene, introduces a new dramatis personae of eccentrics and troubled souls on Mangy Love.
Like the canonized folk-poet raconteurs that preceded him, Cass McCombs writes songs out of characters; not just about them, but out of them. His melodies seem to emanate from the bruised psyches of the eccentrics he follows, his soundscapes from the hermetic worlds they inhabit. Dylan, Costello, Warren Zevon, and Tom Waits may have first mastered this mode of darkly comic, character-centric songcraft, but, over the course of 14 years and nine full-length albums, McCombs has developed his own unique style of condensed pop-music portraiture.
On 2013's sprawling Americana story-cycle Big Wheel and Others, this style was trained on individuals -- drifters, outsiders, nobodies desperately searching for God -- ensconced in a ghostly, sepia-toned vision of the Western U.S. With his signature amalgam of alt-country and fragile-voiced indie, he expertly painted a landscape of afflicted figures who dug "the taste of diesel" ("Big Wheel") and found themselves "broken down for days at a free motel" ("There Can Be Only One"). On Mangy Love, he continues this attentiveness to character creation, draping a new dramatis personae in a billowing glow of soft rock, Philly soul, and cryptic folk.
The album's lead single, "Opposite House", situates one of these characters in a demented carnival-home where rain clouds gather along the ceiling, "pet snakes" slither through the halls, and the doors have all disappeared. McCombs' narrator is a hapless prisoner locked in his own head; a woman has left him bewildered and alone between four airtight walls that prevent the egress of his memories. However, while a festering melancholy runs throughout the song, McCombs' vocal suggests a different mood: warm-hearted resignation, slow yet certain acceptance, a feeling of being floored by unhappiness but also affirmed by the ventricle-flooding intensity of this unhappiness at its apex. "Oh why / Why does it rain inside?", he croons, guitar tendrils unraveling around him as he stretches "why" into something more than a question, into a sigh of relief, a catharsis of desire and breath that was held in too long. Listening, it's easy to picture McCombs in the prototypical pose of the pensive romantic: seated by the window, his eyes on the horizon as rivulets of rain stream down the glass. Except here, the storm isn't outside; it's raging deep inside his cortex.
The sound cultivated on "Opposite House" -- a halfway point between introspective, mid-tempo soft-rock and cooled-down folk-pop -- resurfaces throughout the LP. "In a Chinese Alley" gallops along with a misty guitar melody that gives shape to that period of time when the sun sets and the streetlights drowsily flicker on; "Switch", the highpoint of the record's final act, sounds like a breezy, haze-funk composite of Elliott Smith and mid-'70s Hall & Oates. But it's Mangy Love's opener, the exquisitely opaque "Bum Bum Bum", that employs this sound to the greatest effect. Somber, soaked in space, and laced with a long coil of dissipating guitar, it manages to be both starkly surreal and deeply human at the same time -- a feat that few contemporary songwriters can pull off. Lyrically, it's hard to follow, but a vague story of societal unrest emerges out of the images McCombs strings together: caged dogs, blood-stained streets, screams shooting out of the middle of the night.
Not every track on Mangy Love subscribes to the same AM-gold-for-intellectuals aesthetic, though. "Rancid Girl", for instance, stands on a locomotive guitar chug that wouldn't seem out of place on a Foghat track. "You're a rancid girl / In a rancid world", he sings, condemning this drug-toting man-eater seconds before admitting his infatuation with her: "But I don't mind". From cover to cover, Mangy Love is filled with new characters like this: rancid girls, conniving snake oil salesmen ("Laughter Is The Best Medicine"), systemically abused women ("Run Sister Run"), and part-shoe, part-human hybrids ("I'm a shoe"), to name just a few. These characters show that McCombs is still one of the foremost storytellers in the contemporary indie scene -- a scene that, today, needs more storytellers, period.