Images can be powerful enough to instantly facilitate emotive responses, and it’s the drive of almost every musician to obtain that level of power via their cover art. For over almost two decades now Cass McCombs’ album covers have teetered from simplistic portraits, as on Mangy Love and Wit’s End, to the chaotic, as seen in the drawings of Catacombs, Humor Risk and Big Wheel and Others. On his 10th album, Heartmind, McCombs may have finally captured what his music is all about in one image.
In gorgeous grayscale, the image contains a sinking boat. While there are metaphors surely to be surmised, it somehow most clearly speaks: “Cass McCombs”. He finally captures what his music is in one still: the piercing reflection of the sunbeams almost demand we wear sunglasses to gaze upon it, and the sounds of minor waves splashing against sides of the boat can be heard faintly in the back of our minds. There is beauty and there is melancholy, intrinsically linked.
But McCombs music isn’t about sinking, at least not always. Heartmind’s art shows us how helpless McCombs felt for the last few years during a pandemic, which gave him time to reflect on love and loss.
It opens with the loving side of matters with “Music is Blue”, where he repeats the innocent “She loves we / She loves you / Music is blue”. He soars into some falsettos here and there as he sings about music, how he fell in love with it, and how his relationship with it has evolved over time.
These tunes may seem to soundtrack a leaky boat, but with a curiously optimistic acceptance. The outdoorsy “New Earth” pairs bright production with a somewhat morbid topic: the world after the apocalypse. However, McCombs sounds like he’s looking forward to the eradication of pollution, capitalism, and all of the nasty crap that pours out of our television screens: “today is the birth of a new Earth!”
It’s these nuggets of unlikely positivity that make McCombs such a divine songwriter. He masks topical discussion with guitar pop and we lap it up, simply enjoying or overlooking his witty cynicisms. This is best exemplified “Karaoke”, a radio-ready pop rocker that finds him chiding someone for repeating the loved-up things they think they’re supposed to say to their partner, rather than being honest.
However, sometime McCombs can’t hide his sadness. “Unproud Warrior” is an homage to a friend who joined the military, where he takes six minutes and change to compare the life of his friend with the young accomplishments of many famous authors like Mary Shelley, S.E. Hinton, and Stephen Crane. To say that he’s bummed is an understatement, but McCombs twists his lyrical prowess to fit the song’s flow, even if it ends up with some awkwardness from time to time. The mammoth track features an impressive supporting cast to boot – backing vocals from Wynonna Judd, drums from Kassa Overall and violin from Charlie Burnham, to name a few.
“Belong to Heaven” is linked in tone to both “Music is Blue” and “Unproud Warrior”. Here, McCombs gives us that rollicking folk foundation he’s been building upon for years, reflecting on another lost friend and joining it with his love for music. McCombs has his own interpretations that he’s singing about, but as a musician he begs that his listener take it however they want, so while there are specifics about this lost one – “Always stealing from the plebs / a rosary of Dos Equis beads / instant film from the grocery” – it’s still very open to be consumed by anyone for their own feeling.
As McCombs pushes into the double-digits of his discography, he’s still relying heavily on the structures he’s built around himself and it’s a successful formula as always. As the music fades in and out on the eight-minute closing title track, one can only imagine that boat in the water, the burning hot summer sun melting you down, and those slow but powerful waves washing you away. This is what it feels like to listen to Cass McCombs, especially nowadays.