Humor Risk, the second Cass McCombs album to be released this year, juxtaposes itself against April’s Wit’s End; where the first was harrowing and gloomy, this is, at times, surprisingly buoyant and hopeful. And as the album’s title suggests, Cass has stuck his neck out by adding a sense of lightness to his songs, resulting in a style that doesn’t always fit. ‘Robin Egg Blue’ has an appealing pastoral folk-rock spirit, but lacks a backbone, while the ‘The Living Word’ is drearily inoffensive.
The problem is that, though each song holds its own distinct and singular musical character, sometimes the hooks aren’t strong enough to drive a song anywhere special. The repeated riff of ‘Mystery Mail’ that signals a gear change to 70’s AOR rock is initially refreshing but soon drags, once the guitarist develops repetitive strain injury.
However, diehard doom-lovers need not fear. Despite a lack in quality control in this offering, the two albums are, to borrow Cass’s phrase, cut from different sides of the same cloth. And this being the work of a songwriter very much the heir to Elliott Smith’s misery throne, there are still plenty of moments laced with Cass’s characteristic melancholia as exemplified in one song’s refrain that “pain and love are the same thing”.
His attempts at comic relief won’t have you stifling the giggles, but there’s a definite smirk lying beneath some lyrics that exposes Cass’s gratifyingly dry wit. ‘To Every Man His Chimera’, which sustains a satisfying, linear morbidity throughout, much like Lennon’s ‘Mother’, sees Cass rile against his friends and his hometown: “California makes me sick / Like trying with a rattlesnake your teeth to pick”.
At it’s best, the album’s tone is musically more aggressive than the mid-tempo fare on Wit’s End. The muffled bassline on ‘Love Thine Enemy’ embellishes the distinctly vitriolic tone of Cass’s lyrics, as he puts the knife into insincere poseurs. Elsewhere, there’s a rolling, infectious optimism to ‘The Same Thing’.
‘Meet Me At The Mannequin Gallery’ is charmingly eccentric and the lo-fi hiss of ‘Mariah’ gradually grows into something beautiful, providing an ominous, disorientating end to the album. But by that point the album’s more lightweight moments have already instilled a nagging sense that, despite its admirable diversity in sound and mood, is nonetheless frustratingly inconsistent.
Words: Nico Franks