This is no country for the singer-songwriter. Sure, he still pleads his case, battered guitar in hand, but he knows each show could be his last. In a business dominated by corporate cyborgs and indie collectives, he comes across less like a folk hero and more like a beggar, singing of his own decline for pennies. Admittedly, the entire romance — as it emerged from the cultural fantasies of the early 60s — seemed troubled from the start. The singer-songwriter paid dearly for his craft, the purity of his expression bought at an exorbitant price. If he was allowed to sing at all, he could do so only as outcast, protected by his own rage and self-loathing. Not surprisingly, the tradition rose and fell in a few short decades with Dylan, who, after his first angry burst of independence, retreated further and further into snarling solipsism. Leonard Cohen came across as a melancholic pervert, while Tom Waits appeared on the scene like a junkyard lowlife. Elliott Smith, arguably the last of this doomed line, had to stab himself in the heart. Certainly, in the post-industrial West, the artist-hero exists only in his struggle with society. Stephen Dedalus identified with Lucifer himself, declaring, Non Serviam: I Will Not Serve, embracing eternal damnation over any artistic compromise. But, today, even that modernist pose seems a bore, a nuisance. The revolt of the singer-songwriter is bourgeois at best — a mere echo of some earlier, more radical gesture.
Somehow, though, the tradition has survived, clinging to life via its own negativity. Its very impoverishment figures as a critique, a mark of shame upon the culture industry. The cry of the singer-songwriter — barely even heard these days — echoes the very alienation and hostility of the latter. Sure, there’s no pure expression; the humanist dream of matching sign and self died long ago. And yet the very form of today’s lyric music tells us exactly what we’ve lost. These twisted, emaciated songs — a few jaded quips, a few meager chords — offer no healing consolation, but expose the radical emptiness of contemporary culture. As Theodor Adorno once grumbled, “The lyric spirit’s idiosyncratic opposition to the superior power of material things is a form of reaction to the reification of the world, to the domination of human beings by commodities that has developed since the beginning of the modern era.” Suck it, Auto-Tune. The singer-songwriter gladly curdles into his opposite. Self-expression becomes self-abjection, while song itself becomes inexpressive, indecipherable, unlistenable, silent even. Here, too, the radical gesture becomes cliché, but even this little bit of irony suggests something dire. In the space between adolescent outburst and genuine revolt, the muse returns to mock us, singing of all we’ve lost in terms of genuine expression and aesthetic communion.
On his new album, Wit’s End, Cass McCombs sings, almost literally, from the grave. He pushes the entire singer-songwriter tradition to its gorgeous bitter end, making music that can barely sustain its own emotional burden. His songs sound not just wistful or morose, but anemic, malnourished, as if they’re wasting away under ground. The collection as a whole resembles some kind of sinister chamber music, a set of bare, minimalist arrangements for a small party of depressives. With a few minor chords, a ghostly organ, and, every once in a while, a loud smack of percussion, McCombs stretches both sound and feeling to its breaking point, each thin song hanging on the threat its own impending loss. In this, he follows the predetermined trajectory of his career, stripping his music of all its easy comfort and warmth. However, in this purgation and near silence, at the risk of losing all connection with life, he distills song’s essence, something like lost soul. As he sings on “Buried Alive,” “If you cut a worm in two the other half will grow back/ If I’m alive or dead I don’t really care as long as my Soul’s intact.” As a whole, Wit’s End seems to be testing that logic. Here, soul clings to the most insubstantial traces of song: a note, a lyric, a sigh. But no matter how much you strip away from music’s body, it returns again and again bearing something like grace.
McCombs is not afraid of beauty. Wit’s End risks it all on lush melodic lines and throbbing chord progressions. On clavinet-based tracks such as “Buried Alive” and “Memory’s Stain,” the album distinctly recalls the chamber-pop brilliance of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But McCombs knows only the melancholic side of this day in the life, and his pop leanings are all shadowed by ennui and despair. “Saturday Song” is a rainy-day dirge that presents the singer wallowing in his own despair, his voice scraping the bottom of his vocal range (like Elvis Costello at his most maudlin). The song wickedly captures the self-pity of the social outcast and then pushes it, musically, to that moment when prolonged loneliness turns into nausea. The next track, “Memory’s Stain,” presents the singer in a bathtub, contemplating the unbearable persistence of the past. It opens with a moody piano solo, evolves into a maddening accordion waltz, and then breaks suddenly with a rattle — “Well, I’ll be damned!” — before starting all over again. The movement of the song perfectly captures the unbearable structure of nostalgia, as both morbid preoccupation and dull pain. With songs like these, though, McCombs seems to be testing the limits of his own morbidity and making a creative case for it; his very alienation proves the origin of genuine connection.
Given both instrumentation and structure, Wit’s End also taps into a European cabaret tradition, both the neurotic circus of Montmartre and the decadent madness of Weimar-era Berlin. McCombs follows the path of Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, and countless other singer-songwriters, pursuing his musical vision toward something like its expressionist collapse. In fact, at least two of these songs reach back even further, to the twisted fairy tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann and the Brothers Grimm. (Interestingly, the CD booklet offers McCombs’ lyrics in both English and German and includes an astounding set of drawings by Albert Herter that recall the expressionist satires of George Grosz.) In “The Lonely Doll,” for example, the singer stares drunkenly into a miniature doll’s house, contemplating the sad beauty of small things. The song itself sounds like a cracked wind-up toy; accompanied by a sweetly tolling of a celesta, McCombs offers a humble “tribute to all things petite, pretty and sweet,” but with each repetition of the refrain, his tenderness slowly turns to obsession and, then, a kind of madness (a trick used to great effect by Cohen). “A Knock Upon The Door” is structured as an argument between a sell-out artist and his mis-used muse. The rag-and-bone shop accompaniment (reminiscent of Tom Waits) provides a perfect setting for McCombs’ allegory; the rhythmic clink of metal in the background become a constant reminder of inspiration’s failure and the artist’s impending damnation. Yet here, too, within this timeless conflict between artistic vision and financial necessity, the song goes on, an all too human testament — in its very sounding — to art’s persistence.
In fact, no matter how far gone he seems to be, McCombs always seems to be heading back home. His plight is brilliantly voiced on the album’s opener and lead single, “County Line.” Here, McCombs finds himself returning to the town he left long ago. Not only is he unsure of his motives, but he seems to know that, even if he could get himself to cross that line, he’s won’t be welcomed back. “You never even tried to love me,” he sings in beautiful falsetto, “What did I have to do to make you want me?” It’s an astounding piece of blue-eyed soul, a performance somewhere between Gram Parsons and Smokey Robinson, but the arrangement is stark and foreboding, confounding any easy release. It’s haunted by a barely audible organ in the background, and, when McCombs sings “whoa, whoa, whoa”, all by himself, you can’t help but feel that he’s been deserted by his back-up singers. Here, though, in this isolation, we return to something like “soul” with a vengeance, sounding bare and naked in the empty mix. McCombs, in fact, uses the word freely in songs and interviews, as it refers to both the spiritual dimension of human life and a certain kind of musical feeling. On Wit’s End, he places both himself and the entire singer-songwriter tradition on trial, his personal salvation dependent solely on the purity of personal expression. Clearly, as an artist, he is not making any compromises. He’s not coming home any time soon. But McCombs is making music as if his soul depended on it. I’d listen to the sound of that struggle any day.