A new Cass McCombs record is exciting in itself, but two full-lengths in a year should render the man’s growing legion of fans punch-drunk. Always intimate and unflinching, McCombs’ latest set of dark, poignant stories comes only nine months after Wit’s End, an album that, like its predecessors, had few flaws. From an assembly line standpoint alone, it looks like McCombs is firing on all cylinders in 2011. But in terms of quality, is Humor Risk a level companion to year-mate Wit’s End or its weaker sidekick? Regardless of end-product performance, it’s not often that a release so certain to be bleak is so anticipated.
Yes, black humor doesn’t come much blacker. Over the span of five and a half releases now, we have come to expect certain things from McCombs. Like his past efforts, Humor Risk is soberly crafted and rarely quirky, but it has an undeniable energy to it; the music has that familiar, timeless feeling. McCombs’ usual subject matter and his elusive side notwithstanding, there is always an openness to his songs, whether they set up in the rollicking up-tempo or gripping slow crawl camp. Humor Risk starts with a prime example using the former of these two styles: “Love Thine Enemy” is a monotonous VU-influenced fuzzy guitar chugger that clearly sets the tone.
The entire first half of this record is very strong. Both “The Living Word” and “The Same Thing” are textbook McCombs, but they also show his continued growth as a songwriter. The duo paves the way delightfully for the staggering “To Every Man His Chimera.” As with the best in his oeuvre, the track is the sound of someone used to carrying an incredibly sad weight around with him on his oft-quoted nomadic rambles, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with past classics and containing the strongest lines on the record. Starting with “Not you again, I thought you’d died/ I thought you were killed on your wedding night,” the track steers itself through a dark path with vivid language, ending with this set of cute couplets: “Wind knocked down the chicken coop/ Cat left a rat’s carcass on my front stoop/ Once again I’ve been seduced/ Now it looks like my chickens have come home to roost.”
After this prize centerpiece, the record dips in quality. “Robin Egg Blue” is pretty but a pretty pointless pop tune, and “Meet Me at the Mannequin Gallery” sounds like a McCombs-by-numbers effort. The closing track “Mariah (sketch)” sticks true to that bracketed affixture. This fragile track is quite simply a test run with lyrics that seem to be seat-sitters for future superior last-draft words (e.g., “Mariah/ Standing next to the fire-ah/ Praying it never tire-ahs/ Oh Mariah!”). This from the same man who earlier spat, “California makes me sick/ Like trying with a rattlesnake, your teeth to pick.”
Still, McCombs’ knack for worming under your skin can come seemingly out of nowhere. My first impressions of “Mystery Mail,” for example, proved to be far off-base. Once seemingly overly long and style-stagnant, the cut is a grower, simply for what it is and not for what it lacks. This wordy tale of two friends-turned-drug dealers-turned-jailbird correspondents ends tragically, but hardly sympathetically, with “Daniel’s” death by 16 stabs of a ball point pen. Leave it to McCombs as narrator to put things into grim perspective when talk of immortalizing his former running mate is mentioned. After claiming that “Not everybody should be made a saint/ Daniel was a good guy but a saint he ain’t,” he finishes with the repeated closing line of “I’ll see you in hell.”
As with past efforts, Humor Risk shames the competition, but for McCombs, it’s a minor letdown. In terms of attention to his devoted craft of depicting our damaged world and its inhabitants, he has few peers. Everything is still flawed and everyone unredeemable on this album, but as a whole it doesn’t grip completely like past gems. But for a few lackluster tracks, this would be the equal to anything in McCombs’ impressive back catalogue. In fact, the only thing missing on Humor Risk is a small cut-out of slack.