Big Wheel and Others
Styles: highplains drifter, lovelorn grifter, not a blame shifter
Others: Richard Thompson, Leonard Cohen
Alright; Cass McCombs’ career to date has basically been a long series of feints. Whether it’s outlining his own origin myth, kicking off his first album proper by dying in a hospital, or weighing down a nigh perfect album with maybe the most irritating song anyone’s written this decade, he’s done as much as he can in his power to make sure he’s out of reach, let alone someone your dad might come across in a copy of MOJO. He’s off every map you care to mention, ostensibly governed by the lyric sheet for “The Seventh Seal” more than anything else. Cass doesn’t even want you to vote. And yet, the big sleight of hand in this massive, unwieldly, brilliant, and confusing double album is one so hidden in plain sight you could break your foot on it before you see it; that Big Wheel is at heart an album of tender, aching love songs, set on a foundation of heading back home to what was simple and what was right (or at least looking for it). Judging by how buried that feeling seems here, one figures McCombs had to have a similarly roundabout journey to come that point.
Yet, even if this feels like a clear statement, it comes at you with the force of that time he got buried alive. Cass gets louder the further he gets away from you and less comprehensible in equal measure. Heck, trying to boil him down to anything feels like an insult to the effort he puts into throwing item boxes on the path, and it don’t come easy from the start; he follows one dodge (dropping audio from a dopesmoking four year-old from the documentary Sean) with another, sandwiching as he does the devotion of “Angel Blood” between the title track’s bravado and “Morning Star’s” grimy, grim submissiveness. “Angel” might be his loveliest, purest song to date, but phrases like “What hotel did I stay in/ Before you?” already feel hard-won amidst the master-slave ambivalence he surrounds such simple declarations with.
“Brighter” articulates this tension, with all the talk of wandering into where the flame is and warming himself up to the thought, if only for “a little while” before peeking his head over the parapet again. The fact that the sadly, recently departed Karen Black reprises the song on side 3 is telling; she sings his words back to him, messes them around, and then musses up his hair (“Brighter nitwit/ Brighter Cass/ Brighter dimwit/ Brighter my ass!”). There’s a point where all these circles begin, and it’s just a matter of coming back to where that is. A constant sense of travel permeates his lyrics as usual, but it’s now married more purposefully to the greater theme here. Yet, as Bob Dylan had the contrast between shelter and storm when Blood on the Tracks mingled with coincidence, fate, and chance, Cass puts the stress on the pack of cards when he puts the excellent and self-explanatory “Dealing” and “Sooner Cheat Death Than Fool Love” back to back.
To hone in on this love nonsense is to miss a lot of the trees in the forest, since Cass manages to fit in a lot of stuff about Satan, his Soul (an old concern), Tenaerum, etc. But what everything here comes back to (and is as such held together by) is, of all things, a Thin Lizzy song, “Honesty is No Excuse.” By far the most direct and tragic thing he’s laid to tape so far, the lyrics chart a man’s sudden realization that he’s been doing it all wrong, and McCombs reads it like he’s too disgusted with himself to cry (you can almost hear him shaking his head as he rounds off verses repeating the word “you”). If Big Wheel comes off like a thousand monkeys at a thousand typewriters, that song is the room holding all of them in the same place. If he’s sick of packing up, leaving, and evading, it’s showing, and this 22-track dodge is the biggest devotional to that possible.
From there, there’s the starkly honest “Aeon of Aquarius Blues” (“I miss you/ And you know I don’t mince words/ I wanna kiss you”) before the almost not-there “Unearthed” bring “Honesty’s” candor back to familiarly opaque McCombs territory. There’s a journey here like running a gauntlet years long; there’s love, there’s hate, and there’s a whole heap of distractions on the way. And at the same time, that this is by far the most declarative statement of McCombs’ ragged, rangy glory, these distractions are also by far the most vexing. While previous records have skated through filler (can you remember a second of “Mariah”? Can anyone?), some shards here sing like Sirens trying to lure one into a Hellas so awful it’s primarily founded upon endless mandatory showings of The Love Guru.
“Everything Must Be Just-So” is the longest song in his catalogue so far, but it’s an exercise in gormless dread. Although “Everything” is complete with all of his capital-letter Hegelian horror (cf. “Buried Alive”), it gets bogged down from line one with a heap of unconvincing pratter about racial groups and never gets its legs dry. When it’s followed by the sub-John Mayer boogie instrumental “It Means So Much To Know You Care,” the record starts to stall at the midpoint while it makes the point I was talking about earlier. I’m not even gonna talk about “Satan is My Toy,” but I will tell you that everything starts feeling vertiginously like Self Portrait for a minute or two, and that one of the punchlines is “clit.” (I should add that the most egregious thing about “Everything” is that an older version of the song on his website’s lyric page has the now redacted stanza “In the age of cool opinion/ Let me be wild passion/ And re-edit the ‘Sacred Heart’ video/ With a different ending and wig,” which would have at least been something to sink your teeth into.)
Yet Big Wheel is only confusing because the real stuff is confusing and hard to bear honest, consistent witness to; like how in the same moment someone could break your heart and walk away, and you could just find yourself watching their ass as they left, and be thinking about a dirty joke, and be feeling the most horrific pain you’ve ever experienced, the kind of thing you wake up sweating on in a nursing home. McCombs doesn’t want to be known any better than he already is, but here, for once, he shows that he understands everyone else a far lot better than he has to date.
01. Sean I
02. Big Wheel
03. Angel Blood
04. Morning Star
05. The Burning of the Temple, 2012
07. There Can Be Only One
08. Name Written in Water
09. Joe Murder
10. Everything Must Be Just-So
11. It Means A Lot To Know You Care
13. Sooner Cheat Death Than Fool Love
14. Satan Is My Toy
15. Sean II
16. Home on the Range
17. Brighter! (feat. Karen Black)
18. Untitled Spain Song
19. Sean III
20. Honesty Is No Excuse
21. Aeon of Aquarius Blues