Cass McCombs achieves the perfect middle ground between otherworldliness and sturdy, rhythmic songwriting. McCombs’ ninth studio album Tip of the Sphere—his first since 2016’s Mangy Love—is brazenly derivative, but that doesn’t degrade its quality or its pervasive meditative nature. Mangy Love was both topical and escapist and Tip of the Sphere took that baton and ran with it. In his evocative, literary folktales, McCombs chooses subjects like trains, fireflies, grifters, Hawaiian kings and enigmatic uncles rather than himself, but occasionally allows his shadow to loom.
While still referencing some of the political, cultural and socioeconomic themes he addressed on Mangy Love, this new LP is more concerned with the personal and spiritual implications of these trying times. He gives many takes on death, particularly with themes like reincarnation (“Estrella”), suicide (“Sidewalk Bop After Suicide”) and closure just before passing away (“Tying Up Loose Ends”). On the album’s self-declared centerpiece “Sleeping Volcanoes,” he cheers on the apocalypse (“Welcome to cuckoo land / Home of the fake / Help us Armageddon”) and on the dark, synthy, spoken-word cut “American Canyon Sutra,” he creates a less than flattering portrait of America (“Where Walmart employees and customers / Are one and the same / They’ve even built apartments here / To add a residential coffin to the bargain”).
However morbid his lyrics might be, his descriptions are frequently wonderful. On “Sidewalk Bop After Suicide,” the sidewalk descriptions are unlike anything you’d expect—there’s a sidewalk “polka-dotted with gum” and “chunks of sidewalk coming out of my ears.” On “Estrella,” his love interest “laughed like the wind was nothing,” and on “I Followed The River South to What,” he asks coyly, “Does the devil ever come a-knocking on your sleeping bag / If he ever does, I’ll offer him a drag.” Like a Father John Misty LP or Deerhunter’s latest full-length, McCombs’ chill mid-tempo songs might seem comical when paired with his ominous lyrics, but the album’s languid pace and calming, improvisational jams are a nice oppositional force to its often wretched lyrics. And McCombs’ witty allegories are only elevated by his mystifying guitar work. The hook and bassline on the album opener “I Followed the River South to What” are entrancing, and the acoustic guitar plucks on the Wild West caper “The Great Pixley Train Robbery” are vibrant. There are classic rock touches galore, executed to perfection, apart from the passages of wandering jazz-rock on the final track “Rounder.”
Despite its front-loaded tracklist and one song that sonically doesn’t fit (“American Canyon Sutra”), Tip of The Sphere is great for both the casually-interested listener or the seasoned listener looking for something to slowly melt into and later pick apart. Its moody sway and apocalyptic storytelling adds something more thoughtful and literary to a pile of other recent, bleak rock records.
Listen Cass McCombs’ 2011 Daytrotter session below.