The Universal Truth of Cass McCombs

Noël Wells on her LA traffic-fueled love affair with Tip of the Sphere.

My love affair with Cass McCombs started about three years ago. Though I am not sure how we were introduced, I can only assume he floated into my life via an aggregated playlist, and we got closer when my anxieties propelled me to start taking once-a-month road trips to the desert alone. It is on these drives I would play his discography, howling along to Mangy Love and Big Wheel and Others, sobbing to Wit’s End’s “County Line,” and whatever else the algorithms threw my way. Why I connected so much with his work is probably what makes any great artist worth knowing—to me, Cass McCombs is a singular entity, and being absent a lengthy musical education myself, that is something I can know how to know. I can climb inside his albums and know I am listening to this thing that is Cass McCombs.

Since this is my first jaunt into music reviewing, I was nervous to start. How do I do this? I wanted to give the album my full attention, absorbing the songs properly. I thought about smoking weed, but then realized weed hates me. Shrooms were an option, but I needed to focus, not get naked and dance. Then I remembered I always listen to Cass while driving—recognizing that the hypnotic effect of moving through time and space seems to suit his music, that felt like the best option. But since I had no road trips planned, I did the next best thing, I listened to the album while driving in LA traffic.

As far as going on a musical journey into the depths of Cass McCombs, Tip of the Sphere doesn’t disappoint. While previous McCombs albums have felt deeply contemplative and personal, there always seemed to be a mainstream universality McCombs was channeling in his self-reflections. Tip of the Sphere takes an even deeper inward look into his psyche, but instead of singing about universal truths we could all relate to, we are being invited to plunge into the depths of “The Universal Truth of Cass McCombs” himself, a journey he has taken, with or without us.

I think the Noël of two years ago would not have been able to hang on for this ride, but as I have just graduated a lengthy deep-dive into the astral realms of Van Morrison and the celestial channelings of Alice Coltrane, I’m fully able to jump into the stream of Tip of the Sphere, even while navigating bad traffic.

Upon first listen, it is a rambling, rocky, garage-y, jammy, streamy of conscious-y endeavor, conjuring images of a moodier, older Cass McCombs (though I will admit I have no idea how old he is, and I assume every male indie rocker is 27 and looks like Ty Segall, only because I know what Ty Segall looks like, I think). (I just googled—oh wow, Cass McCombs has a lot of albums, and oh wow, Ty Segall is 31 now?!)

The album opens with “I Followed the River South to What,” a seven-minute sprawling philosophical adventure. Its lyrics could double as cynical koans, opening with “What do you call yourself / I do not care to call myself much of anything.” This song announces the trajectory of the album: Here is a man who is plunging himself into a cosmic abyss, turning over the stones of his spiritual musings, spinning deeper into himself. Follow if you dare, he is on his own trip.

If you hang on, your sense of time becomes necessarily suspended. Mystical, illustrative lyrics take on hard-to-grasp meanings, less about catchy rhymes and more like soul-stirring mantras and ineffable fables, and they, too, become part of the fabric of the trance-like soundscape. It is transformative, and even though I am changing lanes and honking my horn, I am being taken there. A more “McCombs-y” vibe takes shape in the poppy and fever-y celestial track “Estrella,” in which he muses about heartbreak and past lives. While the river of the album is hard to separate into individual songs as you float through meditative tracks like “Real Life” and “Prayer for Another Day,” the songwriting comes into sharper focus toward the end of the album; “American Canyon Sutra” drags you back into the unforgettable hell that is the U. S. of A., and it opens with the lyrics “Pile of cash… trash,” as he observes that “the garbage dump may have turned into a recycling center, but it looks exactly the same.” Though it’s hard to want to sing along, it definitely rings an unforgettable bell of truth.

“Tying Up Loose Ends” is equally pointed—and perhaps the most accessible track on the album for me—further exploring the alienation of the American landscape. He sings, “I found a box of old family photographs / Who are all these people?” By the end of this song, with haunting cascading saxophones and mysterious percussive crashes, I have made my way back to my apartment, where I live alone. I can’t help but feel melancholic and defeated, sitting in my single-car garage in my dirty alleyway as he asks, “Is there anyone still left who can tell me / Who all these people are?” And with that, every sadness I have ever felt about our reality is summed up in one line. I turn off my car. Damn. There it is.

The album is rounded out by a track aptly titled “Rounder.” Mostly instrumental, and over 10 minutes, it leaves you with the image of a rock ’n’ roll cowboy walking into the desert, his image fading into the horizon. Overall, Tip of the Sphere is a haunting musical undertaking, one that may leave you wondering if Cass McCombs has wandered so far out into his psyche that he might never come back. While I certainly hope he does, I wonder what might be left to explore. Perhaps when you go this far out, the only return is to circle back around with some harmless Top 40, banking on ad placements and living the rest of your life off your real estate investments like any old good American success story. Until then!

Noël Wells is a director/writer/actor living in Los Angeles, currently best known for her appearance on Master of None and her feature film Mr. Roosevelt. She likes making things and is passionately not a comedian. (Picture by Brinson Banks.)