Tip of the Sphere is a mystery well worth contemplating.
For all his apparent mystery, Cass McCombs has been an indefatigable presence in the indie/alternative world, releasing a steady stream of albums since his debut in 2003. But he has never seemed like any sort of “fixture” in that world and is not someone who draws much attention to himself beyond the quality of his superb music. Soft-spoken without being precious, McCombs has quietly, humbly built himself a perch as one of the best songwriters around, on the strength of his work alone.
For many listeners, his 2016 album, Mangy Love, the first released on Anti- after five on Domino (the first two were on 4AD), was a culmination of sorts. Landing on several publications’ “best of” lists, the album seemed to invent its own genre, a kind of folk-funk with a warm sound and rhythms that were air-tight without sacrificing a feeling of looseness and ease. In terms of the lyrical content, Mangy Love was notable in representing all sides of McCombs’s personality as a singer and writer, from romantic and introspective to funny and absurdist, from rambling storyteller to ominous prophet.
McCombs’s latest, Tip of the Sphere, sometimes extends the mood of Mangy Love, especially on songs like the enchanting “Estrella,” which combines Johnny Marr-style guitar with the mystical charm of McCombs’s lyrics and vocal delivery, or the moving and delicate “Tying Up Loose Ends,” which features tender keyboard playing, sentimental sax parts and watery guitar licks.
Unlike Mangy Love, however, the album does not seem to want to create its own cohesive “musical world,” which makes it more varied, in a sense, but also less impactful on first listen. Whereas Mangy Love has a compact, almost sculptural unity, this album feels more fragmented, like a diary or a series of sketches. That said, there is plenty to love throughout, as one would expect.
Opener “I Followed the River South to What” finds McCombs in “traveling” mode, with some of his best, most full-throated singing and a looping, loping riff extended over seven minutes, culminating in Garcia-esque noodling toward the end (it also has excellent drumming throughout). This is followed by “The Great Pixley Train Robbery,” which has a lot of attitude, but feels a little generic compared to the rest of the album, almost as though it had been written to be the album’s “hit.”
Much better is the darker, melodic “Sleeping Volcanoes,” which is catchier and has more effective and memorable speak-singing. Likewise, the hand-percussion-driven “Real Life” is one of the album’s standouts, with lyrics that have the resonant simplicity at which McCombs excels—“Were I your telephone/ What would I hear?/ And what good are words/ If they never reach your ear?” The song also has marvelous guitar playing, with subtle harmonics that work well with the accompanying percussion. A similar sensibility is shared by “Prayer for Another Day,” which exudes a hazy, Velvet Underground-quality. The album closes with the 10-minute long “Rounder,” which is the type of song McCombs can pull off like almost no one else, a slow but steady Grateful Deadian groove that he delivers with aplomb thanks to his unflappable delivery and his gift for poetic abstraction: “Hostess of November/ Were the horses clodding/ On slick embers going/ Past the gamblers odding, rounder.”
McCombs’ music is in some ways difficult to define, since he at times sounds like he holds the listener at arm’s length, with music at once intimate and impersonal. But Tip of the Sphere, as with so many of his albums, is a mystery well worth contemplating.