The new album comes out April 11 in the UK and April 26 in the US. It's Cass's fifth record and sees him as reclusive as ever, and continuing the rather browbeaten poetic melancholy of his previous LP, Catacombs. While on first dozen or so listens this does not seem like his best album, each song is a universe on its own, making WIT"S END deserving of a piece-by-piece breakdown. Because what else is there do to.
With soft organ, slow tempo and shivery guitar lines, this opener immediately signifies WIT'S END as carrying on where Catacombs left off. This one was shunted around the internet as a pre-release taster of the new stuff, for good reason. Melodically this is probably the most satisfying song on the record, complete with a nifty refrain reminiscent of Pink Floyd's 'Echoes' and, by association, Phantom Of The Opera. The overall impression, however, is of a cross between 10cc and The Band. Have you ever considered the vague vocal similarities between Cass and Richard Manuel?
'The Lonely Doll'
For all his originality, Cass McCombs has a few songs in his back catalogue where, probably not deliberately, he has sounded exactly like another artist. Look at 'Full Moon Or Infinity' (Elliott Smith) or 'Subtraction' (Morrissey). This is Cass doing early Leonard Cohen. It's all there, the slow ups and downs of the vocal line, the absurd repetition of the title line and the cutesy xylophone. Cass's touch is to throw in some swelling Hammond organ, and to do his usual trick of coming up with a short and tuneful vocal refrain, and repeating it throughout the song without aberration. Magical.
Backing vocals make their debut on WIT's END on this one, even if they are fleeting. Soon we meet the most mysteriously arresting line of the album in 'If I'm alive or dead I don't really care/Just as long as my soul's intact', and indeed in this one it seems that unlike the previous two songs, he is making a point of articulating the words. Of course, they offer expressive little vignettes rather than a coherent message. The organ/harpsichord line in this one is very lovely, with that same Baroque quality as the Beatles' 'In My Life'. The song peaks with a delicious mantra of 'Maybe I'm wrong/Maybe I'm waking for the dead'.
This piano-led number is probably the bleakest song on the album. At no point does it snap out of its state of ominousness, with McCombs unusually exploring the lower end of his vocal range, and indeed after a couple of albums steering clear of the Morrissey influence, this sees him paying his respects once more. A little over-long maybe, 'Saturday Song' will not be the one most listeners skip to.
Much better. The 'verse' melody is in his typical high croon, but unlike so many of his songs, this one has distinct sections - perhaps four. Even a chorus. Its diverse nature is further proven by the ups and downs of his voice, and there are the familiar phonetically impressive lines as 'I have a confession/In the form of a question'. Dare I say this has a certain air of Sufjan Stevens to it? Again, he ends the song on a startling note, with a beautiful meandering section that sees the most wonderful use of bass clarinet this side of Rufus Wainwright. A real highlight.
In some ways, you could say that WIT'S END and Catacombs come as one project, with the former being the sequel to the latter. This is another sparse one, driven by a riff reminiscent of Bryter Layter, which is interesting given that for all McCombs' singer-songwriterly credentials, Nick Drake is not an obvious influence. Interesting here is this song's emotional energy.'Hermit's Cave' begins with a kind of buoyant youthful expressiveness before it comes to an existential crash in its chorus. The juxtaposition is depressing, and beautiful.
'Pleasant Shadow Song'
The penultimate track has the least accessible melody, but also some of the most attractive chord changes and instrumental arrangements. Unlike the rest of the album, this one will take a few listens to grasp. A previous song along these lines must be Catacombs' 'The Executioner's Song'. A full album of this looser style of songwriting might be too much, but this proves McCombs as capable of expressing more than one melodic idea in a song.
'A Knock Upon The Door'
The return of the bass clarinet, and a banjo and even a saxophone for this final slog. This is a perfect encapsulation of Cass McCombs' songwriting style. A single phrase is composed and then repeated for nine minutes, yet the song passes through countless landscapes due to its changing instrumentation and arrangements and the different vocal intonations allowed by the words. Cass doesn't repeat himself once, apart from always returning to the title line. The essence of this song, and indeed a large part of his art, is this: to see how far he can get from his point of departure before returning again. It's often not very far, but he certainly makes the journey worthwhile.