In May, when Cass McCombs began his tour in support of his then-new album WIT’S END, his set at the Troubadour in Los Angeles was punctuated by a mid-set song that McCombs introduced as “from the next album.” The quip got a laugh, but little did we know that he was serious, and that the “next album” would appear just seven months later with this tune, “To Every Man A Chimera,” appearing dead-set in the the center of the collection.
But anyone who is paying any attention will notice that McCombs is full of surprises. Just last week, an interview with the songwriter was published on Pitchfork, a strange occurrence considering McCombs is known to only participate in interviews by hand-written letter. And, what did we discover in the interview? Well, basically that McCombs much prefers to have himself as the artist (or “craftsman,” as he would say) removed from his music, noting that knowing his intentions would only detract from the music at hand. Fittingly, his greatest surprise is the actual content of Humor Risk, which departs greatly from the tone of WIT’S END into something upbeat and immediate. It’s a successful turn for McCombs; something that sees him playing to his strengths without compromising any of his integrity.
See, McCombs aesthetic can be called timeless or classic, and on WIT’S END this leaning seemed lost in the raw emotion of the record, whereas on Humor Risk it is back in full force. “Robin Egg Blue” bounces with the airiness of classic Velvet Underground, allowing the listener to hang on every syllable, but being as interesting musically as it is lyrically. “Love Thine Enemy” moves along with a distorted mid-tempo riff, capturing the listener’s attention quickly, and punctuating lines like “nothing about my love could be called insincere” and the golden observation “every idiot thing you say speaks of pain and truth / because of the beautiful way a tongue can seduce.” The balance between making the listen of Humor Risk striking both to the ears and to the mind is an overwhelming success, and a firecracker of a reminder of why we listen to Cass McCombs in the first place.
Nothing about the eight tracks on Humor Risk seems spare or accidental, as the record is expertly plotted and paced, never falling in to the samey or undifferentiable trap that his previous effort drowned in. “Mystery Mail,” which sounds shockingly like a previously unheard Paul McCartney track from decades past, injects the collection with a vitality that McCombs has been missing since PREfection, an attribute that allows the nearly eight-minute track to pass along without a single glance at the watch. The album’s most intimate track, “Mariah,” is saved for the closing, just when the audience may be looking at McCombs to tug at their heartstrings, serving both as a gentle lullaby and a forget-me-not.
The strange thing about Humor Risk is how the collection hinges on “To Every Man A Chimera,” the only track that would seem equally comfortable on WIT’S END as it is here. As the song inches along with relentless restraint, McCombs hammers each line’s ending consonant, singing with anger, spite, pain, and, possibly, a wink. Had this song been reserved for his previous album, it would have been lost among similar material, but here it shines brightly, not only enhancing Humor Risk, but also casting a light on just what McCombs did well on his previous release. When McCombs announces that “everyone I know suffers just like me,” not only is he believable, but we are grateful that the music doesn’t feel like suffering this time around. And, knowing McCombs still has some tricks up his sleeve will have his audience hoping that his next release comes equally as quickly as this one did.
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