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Cass McCombs is that true rarity—a smartsy-fartsy singer-songwriter type who doesn’t want to share his feelings. Metaphors and allegories pile up, melodies swirl and surge, and his slightly nasal voice cracks and slumps in a way that approximates emotion, but the man is more likely to murmur something about “silverfish quilting testicle” than to tell you the contents of his broken heart. He’s definitely not full of shit, but it’s almost pointless to ponder what sort of person lies below the poetics. No surprise, really, that the Baltimore-based 20-something has made life difficult for his publicists: “I don’t actually want my biography,” he has said, “to contain much in the way of actual biographical information.”
Maybe it’s necessary to take a step back and consider McCombs’ ostensible compatriots. There’s Conor Oberst, the heart-on-his-sleeve waif of the plains. There’s Win Butler, the community-craving frontman of the Arcade Fire. And to a lesser extent, there’s a whole universe of vulnerable-sounding New Weird folksters such as Sufjan Stevens and Devendra Banhart. All those dudes have one thing in common: They hurt, and they make it relatively plain in one way or another. McCombs, by contrast, seems more interested in channeling an abstract kind of pain—something global and nonspecific, something in the air, the kind of thing that other cultures have untranslatable phrases for.
To be fair, some of the sentiments on McCombs’ debut long-player, 2003’s A, sounded like self-reflection. “Meet Me Here at Dawn” was an achy relationship tune; “Gee, It’s Good to Be Back Home” had an irony-free tinge of nostalgia; and “I Went to the Hospital” was strangely literal and personal at the same time. That last one even kicked the disc off with a bit of first person: “I may soon be gone,” McCombs sang. “To pluck on a harp/Like those colored-pencil portraits of dogs/We saw on a blue tarp.” But there was also the queasy, hymnlike “AIDS in Africa,” which was either a beautifully bizarre piece of activism or a nearly 6-minute exercise in geopolitical empathy. In either case, it ultimately revealed only one thing about McCombs the person: The morning paper is fair game for inspiration.
The new PREfection finds him pushing even farther into literary territory. The album’s slow, delicate opener, “Equinox,” offers a collision of images from some Aesop-worthy wedding. “Of all the creatures in the wood/One law is commonly understood/Deep in the heart of Fontainbleau/The marriage of a whore and Jew/The bride’s true dowry black rocks/Equinox,” he sings, approximating John Lennon with too many ’Ludes in his system. Later, the wedding guests “twist and thrust and whine and grope/As if under a microscope/In hope to catch smallpox.” Somehow, though, the song works, even though common sense says it should be a total drag. The reasons are simple: McCombs’ voice is so detached that the words are hardly discernible, and the rudimentary guitar/bass/synth/drums mix, which shows that somebody knows a thing or two about the mind-altering effects of lots and lots of reverb, packs almost as much surrealism as the lyrics do. McCombs is patient and restrained with a six-string, too, and here that works in his favor.
The rest of the album is full of similar alchemies of McCombs’ penchant for oblique storytelling and his ability to write a respectably catchy 4-minute piece of music. In this mode, the bittersweet “Sacred Heart” is the disc’s minimasterpiece, with its heavy ’80s influences (think New Order, anything involving Morrissey, and the nascent dream-pop scene, for starters) and its nonlinear, nearly indecipherable narrative (possibly about overeducated young men in transition). McCombs sounds fully invested in the song’s characters, and he even offers up some semilucid—but nonetheless defeatist—romanticism at track’s end: “Cinderella’s in the doghouse/The doghouse/The doghouse/No, love doesn’t always boomerang.” On that last line, the song soars away as if the thought gives him some sort of hope. He’s not wounded; he’s philosophizing.
If that track best displays McCombs’ tricksy talents, his humanity creeps out the most on “She’s Still Suffering.” The title has a disease-of-the-week vibe, and the song begins with a query of “Who aren’t you today?” But the lyrics are most likely about a buddy on a bender, one “under a pile of worn clothes…spinning vomit webs.” The narrator tells him, “You need more than vitamin D/Is there not anything you love?” Well, yeah—he’s probably getting over a girl. McCombs goes on: “Dog, you know what this is/What you are hiding from?/
You were once such a merry prince/Just tickled pink by life.” The basic conceit—trying to cheer up somebody via, let’s face it, a pretty nerdy mix of pop psychology, pop culture, and stilted language—is a bit much, but the splashy drumming by longtime bandmate Dutch E. Germ communicates enough tension and frustration to make it all seem sensible. The fuzzed-up bass and strange, seesawing keyboards don’t hurt, either.
Other tracks are more gimmicky, including “Bury Mary,” with its British Invasion riff and mild attempts at black comedy, and “Subtraction,” which pairs a Motown rhythm with yet more disjointed verbiage. Likewise, “Tourist Woman” doesn’t get much out of its droning bass line, surf-rock guitar solo, and ruminations about the questionable intentions of international do-gooders. (“Tourist Woman is unhappy/With the meager conditions/They have given her/From Oxford to UCLA/To empoverished streets/Of a Bengali village.”) Joe Strummer probably could’ve made it a knockout, but McCombs seems stuck on the novelty of it. To top it all off, he throws in a little reference to “AIDS in Africa” at the end, perhaps to make the point that everything is connected.
Come to think of it, that’s probably why a mysterious figure named Klock shows up more than once on PREfection. Or why “Multiple Suns” includes the declaration “Better than memory: ACTUAL TIME TRAVEL.” But if the less successful songs prove anything, it’s that McCombs is still looking for a consistent balance between his thought processes and his musical instincts. He’s already figured out how to avoid guy-with-a-guitar clichés, and he obviously knows that he can get away with having an impenetrably serious presence as a vocalist. But not all of PREfection is in an artistic comfort zone, and after a while, decoding McCombs’ worldview becomes a challenge, not a treat.CP