Rumpus Sound Takes: As If It Were The First Time


Cass McCombs
Humor Risk

The thing I have noticed about Cass McCombs, or rather the thing I think is a telling parallel to his music, is that he never really looks the same in pictures. I mean, it’s not like he just looks a little bit different from picture to picture; he looks radically different. Soft features in one photo, rough and scratchy in the next. Hair a Kurt Cobain-type length with a wave. Next a tight Morrissey cut with a crimped top. And it’s not that it matters what McCombs looks like, rather that the change in appearance admits a kind of fluency, a kind of not knowing what’s going to come next, a kind of perpetual surprise as to what things will look like as time passes.

Not that this is reason enough to like someone’s music, but if you listen to McCombs’ records, none of them really sound like the others. Sure some of the harmonies overlap, as does some of the subject matter, but as far as whole records go, they all seem to come from a different place. The same can be said of Humor Risk, the second full-length album McCombs released this calendar year. Humor Risk has a bit more of a rock’n’roll feel than previous records. He gets the guitars going with the first song “Love Thine Enemy” and brings them back toward the end of the album in “Mystery Mail.”  But these aren’t the songs on the record that stand out, or rather, they do stand out but by doing so overshadow some of the more introspective songs.

In an interview with Pitchfork, McCombs says something about how “the individual only distracts from the universal.” In regard to music I think of this statement as being a little seedling for psalm, an invitation for something holy to enter the song for a short time. “The Living Word” and “Robin Egg Blue” both do this through their lyrics, through the melody McCombs sings and the way the guitar sings with him. Like prayer, there is beautiful repetition in both of these songs: “Let me speak the living word/ the living word/ the living word”; “Saint Jude, when will I learn/ … / What’s done is done, done, what’s done is done.” I love the way McCombs includes mention of Lao Tzu speaking to Confucius, taking the idea of the word of God and giving it a broader scope. As for Saint Jude, well he is the saint of lost causes and despair, and whoever you are, despair will show up at some time or another. And how does one transcend despair? By telling and hearing stories. By finding ways to transcend ourselves.

McCombs won’t discuss religion in interviews, but there is a healthy amount of contemplation and humanism going on in these songs. It is this type of contemplation that can make an artist undefinable, or rather naïve in the way each song or album is approached in earnest, like any first approach. And perhaps for McCombs the body (or its appearance) becomes a diagnostic for these internal changes. And he says in “Love Thine Enemy,” “Nothing about my life could be called insincere.” Taking its cue from the album’s title, sincerity is nothing if not a risk.

Jackie Clark is author of Aphoria (Brooklyn Arts Press). She is the series editor of Poets off Poetry and Song of the Week for Coldfront Magazine and is the recipient of a 2012 New Jersey State Council on the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming from Delirious Hem, Denver Quarterly, and Yoga City. Jackie lives in Jersey City and can be found online at More from this author →