California born singer-songwriter Cass McCombs has made a career out of writing songs that balanced gravitas with levity, sardonic wit with existentialism. With his previous record, Catacombs, he arguably finally found a suitable musical companion for his meandering and cerebral lyrics, with a sound equally minimalistic and psychedelic, drenched in negative space. His has always been a warped take on Americana, filled with oblique social commentary and a keen eye for trivial details that echoed universally.
Wit's End is the darkest he's gone yet. The general mood is one of angst and malaise, without significant changes in register. If you've heard the first song made available for streaming (also opening the album), County Line, you've heard the most upbeat material on here - and beyond its understated and agreeable tune, it is an absolute emotional drain of a song. You will read the following line quoted again and again, but for good reason: there is something magical about how he's able to deliver its full potency without sounding self-commiserating.
You've never even / Tried to love me
Which is not about a woman (too easy?) but about his very home, that rejected him because of their diverging values and morals.. one assumes.
The bleakness in lyrics is matched by the music: the songs have an overall murky texture that is only sparingly colored by melodic turns that are like droplets in a dark and still ocean. Their structures change very little, but they are rendered more powerful by mesmerizing repetition.
Perhaps the best example of McCombs' ability to toy with the canon and create something classical sounding, yet deeply personal and somehow unsettling, is The Lonely Doll. It sounds oddly anachronistic because of the dylanesque repetition of the title at the end of each verse, which lends it the look and feel of a folk ballad, while the lead melody sounds like something a carillon would play, giving it an aura of innocence. All of which clashes dramatically with the lyrical content of the song, that slowly turns an idyllic scenario into a mournful allegory of the human condition - the girl as a doll, trapped in a shapely but inexpressive cast. The ending of the song has a moral, which suggests a tragic turn of events that is never made clear: it is left to interpretation - personally i can't help but think suicide is involved.
Each song has a marked feature that gives it a strong identity, even though it may not be apparent on first listen - the solipsistic ramblings of Hermit's Cave, the unbearably morbid and surreal imagery on Buried Alive, the unlikely but striking central metaphor on Memory's Stain. The truth is, you are likely to feel different associations with this record than I do, and you would be right - this is an album whose contours are consciously left blurry, and as a listener you may often end up blindly grasping for meaning, in a quest that is elusive, but all the more enriching for it.