I was rather late to the game of songwriting. I recorded my first album when I was 30 and, as with most first attempts, it was, at least to me, a failed realization. I knew it the first second I heard the first note of the master. It somehow felt choked and slightly embarrassing, like someone showing you surveillance footage of yourself sucking in your gut in the mirror.
The ways of capturing the “Holy Ghost” on a record seemed very elusive to me when I was starting out. I was so concerned with getting it “right” that I wasn’t flexible enough for the magical component of spontaneity.
I had always marveled at the raw simplicity of my heroes like Lou Reed or Neil Young but somehow didn’t apply the same rules to myself.
Cass McCombs was the first of my contemporaries to help me realize that these rules did, in fact, still apply to me. The first time I heard McCombs was when a friend played me 2003’s A in the van while I was on tour. McCombs and I had both just released our respective first albums and his made mine sound like a plastic flower arrangement: I suddenly saw everything that was wrong with it.
There were such strong, unapologetic moves being made on A. The production sounded one step above four-track cassette, and the playing wasn’t perfect but it was so soulful and human. And then there were songs with titles like “I Went to the Hospital” and “AIDS in Africa”… AIDS in Africa!!!??? What the fuck! And to this day, even having met him, I still think, who the hell is this guy?
Cass McCombs has remained my favorite songwriter of my generation ever since. I have followed his restlessness from record to record. Despite what some very non-soulful gatekeepers may tell you, a corporation’s sales benefit from consistency, but an artist’s work benefits from change. Even if a new direction falls on its face, the willingness to change is more aligned with nature than any highly profitable assembly line production. McCombs has gone from the amphetamine heaviness of 2005’s Prefection to the Laurel Canyon vibes of 2008’s Dropping the Writ, but what has remained consistent is his nature — the thing I heard when I first heard A. He really knows when to stay out of his own way. He’s made more startling departures than Big Wheel and Others — to me, this record feels almost like a retrospective, at least in terms of production and modes of songwriting. It’s a double album, so I won’t speak to every track, but just touch on the ones that stand out to me.
“Angel Blood” is a mellow song, nice and easy, an old-fashioned country progression with a cyclical form, which means it’s one long idea that repeats a few times. It’s a way that McCombs frequently writes — it helps to give his songs an unforced feeling, that he’s not rushing to the chorus or arbitrarily sticking in a bridge for fear of redundancy. For some reason, “Morning Star” conjures images of Charlie Manson for me — I think that has to do with the combination of the first line, “Leave your husband and come with me,” and the organ and percussion. “Brighter” has that springtime innocence to it — it sounds like it was written in one sitting. I love the line “brighter mineral, illuminate” — I like thinking about glowing pockets of minerals deep in the earth. I wonder if, on “There Can Be Only One,” he’s talking to Jesus — he might have been a very devout Christian this whole time, right under our noses. He definitely hasn’t shied away from the odd Bible reference and it seems to be the destination for many a lonely contemplative. “Everything Has to Be Just So” has a kind of Native American prophecy vibe to it in the verses and then all of a sudden in the middle of the song it opens up into this beautiful, impressionistic, almost Kate Bush chorus, a real moment of inspiration.
And then, out of nowhere, we have the instrumental, John Scofield-type funk jam of “It Means a Lot to Know You Care” — it is, as they say, strong and wrong. I’m not complaining — it’s nice to see him throw in this completely out-of-context jam. I mean, we’re not saving any lives here, it’s just a record. He’ll probably get a lot of heat for this and other curveballs on Big Wheel and Others — my guess is that there won’t be one critic that sees this as him exercising his artistic freedom; instead it will be seen as lazy. It’s like the critics are thinking about how we represent ourselves when the next wave of advanced intelligence are going through the ruins of our extinct race — our files had better be in order or these superior beings are not going to get a clear picture of our culture. That Scofieldish jam on the Cass McCombs record that came out in October, 2013 might send them into hundreds of years of delusion. How dare he.
On “Dealing” we get a bit of a Lennon a la “Julia” vibe. He seems to be talking about the dual meaning of the word “dealing” and finds the perfect moment to talk about Mephistopheles. (He beat me to it. Damn.) He keeps the poker theme going with “Sooner Cheat Death Than Fool Love,” a nice funky country number. “Home on the Range” is my favorite track on the record — I’m a real sucker for the lonely, slightly despondent numbers. It’s a slow kind of subtly heavy tune with a great descending progression and a beautiful turn in the chorus, and it builds nicely towards the end. “Honesty Is No Excuse” is a Thin Lizzy cover, and it pretty much stays true to the original, but the song is too good to mess with. Anyway, it’s nice of him to hip the kids to a great song.
Being a double album, Big Wheel and Others takes a bunch of listens to get a grasp on the magic imbedded in it, and by the end of the record, it’s easy to forget some of the great songs that came up earlier. Cass McCombs is not really open for criticism at this point because he’s an active artist on his way somewhere, and until he arrives or just desides to stop, we won’t see the full picture. Who’s to say whether or not an artist is living up to his potential? What is the benchmark that artists are held up to? Is it the most recent Beach House or Tame Impala record? Or have the critics heard your perfect record in a dream and are judging you against that? Big Wheel and Others is an album by someone who will remain vital even as more “impressive” mountains of ash rise and are blown away. Cass McCombs’ ship hasn’t come in yet. But eventually, the sheer volume of great work will be too difficult to ignore and he’ll finally get the recognition he deserves.