Music Reviews
Humor Risk

Cass McCombs Humor Risk

(Domino) Buy it from Insound Rating - 7/10

For such a downcast songwriter, Cass McCombs constantly seeks ways to extend his reach as far as possible. Constantly being dismissed as one who derives sadistic pleasure of his own troubles, it seems as if that fictional personification is his greatest amusement. And the more that image is overblown to mythical status, the more reactive he gets – McCombs even went as far as devising a viral parody of himself, in which a sneering journalist blurts a series of made-up assessments such as “the Lee Hazlewood of Atwater Village” and “the Jack Parsons of bubblegum rock” to feed into his own ego. No wonder he is averse to being that outspoken (though a Google search will give you more than a handful of interviews): words define character, and he sure as hell wouldn’t want to be judged upon them.

Of course, every predisposition brought to McCombs is fully earned, especially when its source couldn’t be any more overt. His previous release, Wit’s End, was a languidly terrifying account of a man throwing his very own rollicking funeral party. He insists that the humor isn’t easily perceived, and one has to read between the lines to become aware of its ironic mirth. Suppose the joke is on us and we don’t get it – lines like If you cut a worm in two the other half will grow back/if I’m alive or dead I don’t really care would even provoke the most absentminded to sense that, indeed, its allegory borders on clinical. Even the soulful limerick of The County Line, which reflects on the relentless wave of change, struggled to shed a little sun to prepare us for the rest of the album’s doleful accounts. Perhaps a ways distant from the utterly romantic waltz of You Saved My Life, but McCombs was straight shooting a morose mood with the occasional well-lit imagery and sound.

So for someone who is frankly aware of his own humor, being at a risk for it must be the least of his worries, right? McCombs won’t be seen riding a horse while contemplating about Phaedra or researching rocket science, and in Humor Risk, he undeniably flaunts his philosophical mojo like the swankiest of hip-hop moguls. Parsons and Hazlewood? A bit of both. After the staunch, minimal lyrical work of Wit’s End and Catacombs, he rekindles a vehement desire to divulge a series of theoretical vignettes more akin to his earlier work. Mc Combs is devotedly contradictory, which should translate to him taking the role of acting, well, human: he promotes equality in The Same Thing: nothing in common; our blood, thicker than broth/we’re cut from different sides of the same coin, but not before acknowledging that we may not like each other in the first place in Love Thine Enemy: hypocrites especially practice the Golden Rule/I love what you say though sometimes it’s mean.

A little less twang, and bucket loads more swing, Humor Risk mostly carries out a focused improvisational approach that strictly adheres to workmanlike American roots. McCombs and his band are no strangers to repetition, so it makes sense that the aforementioned The Same Thing and the hoarse jam of Love Thine Enemy stick to the same two chords from the moment those opening notes hit. There are some variations to the rule: The Living Word shambles in a subtly understated mode; similarly, Mariah is dimly hallucinogenic, even percolating a blues lick over analogue hiss, capping the album with a strange allure that could’ve easily passed off as a White Album outtake. The only misstep comes from the eight minute fable Mystery Mail, with McCombs simplifying the song’s structure into a limp, bar band riff to tell a story about two ill-fated drug dealers, lacking a memorable punchline once it reaches its climax.

Humor Risk straight away gives the impression that these are undercooked morsels scrapped from the Wit’s End sessions. Laying bare more cunningness in a semesters’ time than your average narrator, McCombs amasses an affectionate set of stripped down songs that further illustrate a tireless writer who continues to reinvent himself in understated ways. Almost counterintuitive to Wit’s End’s cryptic dimness, Humor Risk rhythmically shakes off the lingering sad sack and triggers back the talky, rambunctious oddments of wisdom we’ve come to know from him. But this is an attempt at being jovial to masquerade any despair – McCombs comes from the camp that believes that life’s tragedies should be made flesh, confronted and spoken with sincerity. Once you flip your mindset, you’ll begin to see the humor in it.