There’s a story Cass McCombs has told about how in his older days, he would never sit for publicity shots. At a certain point, the 21st-century rambling man claims, his label hired a private investigator to follow him around, snapping an artist photo from a great distance instead. Self-mythologizing perhaps, but it parallels McCombs’ own songwriter eye, shadowing people milling about us otherwise left unobserved, sounding at a remove, yet zooming in and capturing intimate details.
Cursed to be a Kris Kristofferson in a Chris Brown world, the “songwriter’s songwriter” McCombs nevertheless has disciples in the “Cult of Cass,” including Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij, Phish’s Mike Gordon, and Ariels Pink and Rechtshaid. Yet McCombs is a moving target, a mystery in an era when instant access is demanded from its artists. Just try pinning down a zip code for McCombs, much less a stable backing band. Songs of unspeakable sadness, a song for Bradley Manning, an album embracing the sprawl of the American West, and then an album of skiffle, McCombs zags where he’s anticipated to go straight.
Mangy Love, his eighth album, now finds him on the Anti- label and like the title suggests, it shows divergent aspects of Cass, at his most subtle, resonant, and resplendent, and at others, his most maddeningly repetitive and scabby. “Bum Bum Bum” features a nimble guitar line, dreamy electric organ, and an effortless rhythmic pulse, sounding gentle even as there’s war all around him. Singing in his finest Elliott Smith falsetto — perhaps no coincidence, as longtime Smith producer Rob Schnapf is behind the boards for this LP — Cass fits the harrowing images of blood on the streets and a congealing river of blood into a disarmingly serene soundscape. “Opposite House,” with Angel Olsen adding angelic backing vocals underneath his soft croon, is one of Cass’ most delicate creations, singing of domesticity even as he wonders, “Why does it rain inside?”
That bittersweetness, between the brutality of the world studied and the beauty of the music conveying those observations, is what McCombs does best. But almost every album also contains songs that act like gunk embedded in an old record groove, repeating ad nauseam. Only three of Mangy Love’s songs clock in under four-and-a-half minutes, and once they bog down, they can never quite escape their rut. “Laughter Is the Best Medicine” ambles along like an old Van Morrison song, though one with jaw harp and synth, where the word “medicine” seemingly gets enunciated 600 times. “Run Sister Run” is righteous in its defense of women, but even with its uptempo reggae feel, it jogs itself ragged long before it reaches the end. “Low Flying Bird” doesn’t quite land, nor does it soar. Closer “I’m a Shoe” might be Cass’ most stolid, monotonous moment yet.
But when he’s distilling the inexplicable sadness of everyday life, there’s none better. “Medusa’s Outhouse” (and its NSFW video) is tender and unsettling, meaningful and amnesiac. Director Aaron Brown’s video captures the song perfectly, drifting over a porn set, catching and amplifying the details left out of any porno film. Even the actress interviews at video’s end seem to carry on the themes: “Everyone is just hustling and pursuing this almost-unattainable goal; so many broken hearts, broken dreams,” one says. “Hollywood is absolutely haunted.” Like the best of his work, these lines spill beyond the confines of the song and carry out into the real world. It also sounds like the beginnings of Cass’ next song.