Cass McCombs has built a strange reputation for himself. That is, he doesn’t really have one, save for the one built on his music alone. There is no (functioning) Cass McCombs Twitter feed, no McCombs-helmed Facebook account, no hefty paper trail of interviews. McCombs is sort of a J.D. Salinger type of figure. Just how underground is he? Well, if you want to ask him something it can only be done by conventional mail. And when it was time to get some PR photos for his third LP, Dropping The Writ, Domino had to hire a private investigator to shadow McCombs and take them. According to the label, McCombs bears a deep distrust of the industry, but it’s not enough to keep him from sharing his efforts publicly, as he does with Humor Risk, his sixth LP.
The album’s a marriage of McCombs’ poetic and veiled lyrical style, and core Americana musicianship. Drums are snappy, guitars are never ornate, and melodies are at once deceptively simple and ear-catching. On this go-around, there’s some ’90s inflections of fuzz guitar on tracks like “Love Thine Enemy” and “Mystery Mail” recalling bands like Pavement and Squeeze. But again, the showstopper is the depth of McCombs’ lyrics, all of which are very well thought out. Everything is just where it should be, nothing is ever done for the sake of style, and his arrangements are impeccable.
McCombs describes himself as a folk artist and certainly fits the description of a troubadour. He’s lived in a lot of different places, worked a lot of different jobs. This is no doubt where his narrative technique developed. His use of character, revealing details and genuine emotion, mainly loneliness, forms a rich and textured lyrical craftwork. It often comes at you in unexpected ways. “I saw this quote in a book and thought of you,” he says in the first track, “Love Thine Enemy.” It’s that everyday moment, something innocuous, that prompts in him this dilemma of how to love your enemy. The result is disarming and puzzling, and is repeated often.
Humor Risk is a journey of an album. The tours you’ll take on songs like “To Every Man His Chimera” of an anxious America to the hypnotic bloom of “The Living Word” are sure to intrigue. It will take repeat listening to capture the total gist of the record, as well as digging into McCombs’ back catalog to get the whole story.