Enigmatic roamer Cass McCombs can hardly be pinned down – musically or otherwise. The typical singer-songwriter label isn’t applicable to his catalog, he’s spent his adult years traipsing about the country, and his standoffish, mysterious public persona only adds to the intrigue. On this fifth full-length outing, Wit’s End, though, we find McCombs staying in one place, settled into a soundscape consumed with thoughts of darkness and death – and effortlessly transporting the listener there as well, with undeniable finesse.
The album begins with single “County Line”, a strong, structured track rich in bass and completed with McCombs’ delicate falsetto longing for lost love. The slow, unassuming nature of the song sets the stage for the rest of the album, as these eight songs fail to outwardly demand your attention but earn it with their masterful execution and subtleties. “Buried Alive” functions as Wit’s End‘s thesis statement, as each track inundates the listener with layers upon layers of morose melodies, dirge-like lyrics, and lethargic repetition to the point of inescapable asphyxiation. Instead of being uncomfortable, though, the experience is a woozy, intoxicating, and weirdly enjoyable one, as reality gives way to McCombs’ soothing, brooding vocals. The weight of the album is its strength, as he takes care to meticulously strike the perfect balance between dark and contemplative versus downright depressing.
Thematically, McCombs’ false nostalgia, yearnings for idealized versions of yesterdays, dominates – particularly noticeable in piano-heavy “Memory’s Stain”, the repetition of “look now” painting romantic pictures of days and lovers past. The use of an organ, accordion, assorted woodwinds, and pangs of percussion throughout the album create an aural experience akin to watching a carnival in slow motion, a spectacle whirring by, most notably on closing standout track, “A Knock on the Door”. The meandering phrasing alongside the slew of instruments all work together incredibly well, resulting in an album that certainly is no soundtrack to a sunny day but is perfectly suited to a contemplative night alone.