I used to love Cass McCombs. That love lasted the duration of exactly one album, the still astounding PREfection. On it, McCombs seemed to be making an attempt to shrug off every singer-songwriter cliché imaginable and instead inject the form with inscrutable lyrical absurdity, atmospheric production and a spectral organ underpinning some hypnotic mid-80s gothic-guitar jangle. Fittingly enough it came out on 4AD in the UK and seemed to fit in with that label’s off-kilter aesthetic. Since then his career has been one of retreat and a gradual sinking into the very clichés that PREfection sought to avoid, a retreat which continues on his latest release Wit’s End. This album serves as a rather desperate attempt by McCombs to join the serious singer-songwriters club, and it does so by shamelessly echoing acts like The Band, Leonard Cohen, and Elliott Smith.
The album begins with ‘County Line’ and immediately I think of The Band. McCombs even indulges in some Richard Manuel-esque vocalising at points and I get the sinking feeling that the artist I once loved is gone forever. Next up is ‘The Lonely Doll’ and I immediately think of Dylan or, more specifically, his Blonde On Blonde cut ’4th Time Around’. It drags on repetitively and is in desperate need of a middle-eight to break up the monotony. If you think demanding a middle-eight is too classicist I recommend that you don’t listen to this album at all. It reeks of playing by rules, of adhering to classic-rock standards, while all the time falling short of its target. The album is devoid of risk, with each song faithfully echoing classic song arrangements from the late 60s or early 70s in a somewhat cloying and unsatisfactory manner. ‘Saturday Song’ feels like a weak echo of The Band’s ‘Whispering Pines’, and album closer ‘A Knock Upon The Door’ struggles to hold the listener’s attention for its nine-plus minutes of Cohen-esque ponderousness.
The main problem is the album’s lack of originality. In terms of tasteful production and arrangement, each song succeeds on its own limited terms but, at heart, it is a well-dressed corpse. If one were looking to explore the golden age of jazz one would not be advised to listen to Wynton Marsalis but the original artists who made, then broke, the rules. Listening to a technically perfect recreation negates the spirit and the point of the original music. Though still showing signs of lyrical eccentricity, he does not embody the music with anything resembling an overarching artistic vision in the way that Elliott Smith was able to (whose perfecting of the form and subsequent violent death rendered the already tired singer-songwriter persona obsolete). A person looking to enjoy this type of music should be going to ‘Whispering Pines’, ‘So Long, Marianne’ (Leonard Cohen), ‘Young And Innocent Days’ (The Kinks) or even ‘Waltz #1′ (Elliott Smith). There you will find a pulsating spirit of exploration and originality.
When an artist changes there are often complaints from fans about this change of direction. Sometimes these complaints amount to grumbling about not being able to ‘get into’ the artist’s new sound. The old fans cannot grow with the artist who must then hope for newer fans to compensate for this loss. In this instance the opposite is true. I loved Cass McCombs, but I cannot shrink to fit his new sound. I too have loved the music of Dylan, The Band, Cohen and Smith, and probably always will, but I am not looking for the artists I cherish to recreate that music. I want them to have their own distinctive artistic voice, and I want them to take chances. What’s even more depressing about this new artistic turn is that it will not give McCombs the bigger audience he is so obviously craving. He is destined to remain on the sidelines but, rather than using that obscurity to be willfully experimental or at least gleefully eccentric, McCombs is instead making a failed bid to be taken seriously by playing to classic-rock rules, in much the same way that Beck did with Sea Change except with Beck it paid off (more’s the pity).
If you like museum pieces, by all means pick this album up. For those who seek signs of life from the artists they admire, I advise looking elsewhere.
(This review originally appeared on Collapse Board)