In the early ’00s, when Cass McCombs and I were both living in Baltimore, we knew each other a little bit. We weren’t friends or anything; I doubt he’d remember me. But we had mutual friends and we’d see each other at parties and stuff. At one point, he toured with a backing band comprised entirely of guys I knew from around town; I think most of them are in Arbouretum now. One Halloween, when his hair was just sproingy and not yet scraggly, he dressed as Robert Smith from the Cure and pulled it off admirably. Most of the girls I knew had crushes on him, and he was an absolutely pleasant dude. But even then, everyone around the small city’s small scene regarded him with a sort of hushed reverence. The first time I saw him, he was opening for the Oranges Band, playing first on a four-band bill, and it might’ve been one of his first shows. The small early-arrival crowd knew it was seeing something special. When the Oranges Band, scene elders at the time, took the stage a few hours later, they admitted to being impressed. Cowed, even.
I mention all this because McCombs has become one of the great mercurial figures in indie rock; an unknowable sylph of a voice declaiming knotty but meaningful-seeming insights over hushed but classicist mutations of old-world rock and roll. Peep this recent contentious Pitchfork interview, in which McCombs absolutely freezes out my friend Ryan, answering probing questions as elusively as he possibly can. In a short period of time, McCombs has built quite a catalog; Humor Risk is his second album of 2011 and his sixth overall. The way he cranks these albums, each one a shade different from the one preceding it, reminds me of the way singer-songwriters used to do it, back when you weren’t expected to sequester yourself for a couple of years and emerge with a new magnum opus. McCombs hasn’t released his masterpiece and he probably never will; the way he works is almost a rebuke to the idea of the masterpiece. 2009’s Catacombs is probably my favorite of his albums, but that probably says more about me than it does about him. It’s the album where the simple Buddy Holly/Roy Orbison sweetness running through his music is at its most prominent, and I like that stuff.
The new Humor Risk also approaches that sound, albeit in a few different ways. It follows immediately after WIT’S END, which was stark and heady and mostly drum-free. Musically, Humor Risk is a whole lot breezier. “Robin Egg Blue” is an acoustic-guitar lilt, “Love Thine Enemy” an airy chug, “Mystery Mail” a quasi-Stones boogie with some serious bite to it. The songs are catchy and fun. But even at their lightest, there’s a lot to wrap your head around. McCombs is the person who willfully confounded his entire audience with “AIDS In Africa” on his first album, and even though there’s no immediately mind-warping lyrical moment like this on Humor Risk, I don’t really want to comment on his lyrics right now. I haven’t been living with them long enough. You need time to pick through what this guy says, to pull your own meanings from it.
In his productivity and his lyrical pointedness and his enigmatic nature, McCombs reminds me of a ’00s version of ’90s-era Bill Callahan, back when he was still Smog. Except — and this is just one man’s opinion — I think he’s a way better songwriter. Nothing Callahan ever did has stuck with me the way “When The Bible Was Wrote” and “That’s That” and “Dreams-Come-True-Girl” and “The Lonely Doll” have. Humor Risk, too, has tracks that’ll linger with me like those. And just generally, it’s thrilling to watch McCombs, a guy I used to know, continuing to build a body of work that few of his generation can match. Salut.
Humor Risk is out today on Domino.