MANGY LOVE by Cass McCombs
Genre: Singer / Songwriter
Favorite Tracks: “Bum Bum Bum,” “Laughter is the Best Medicine,” “Medusa’s Outhouse,” “In A Chinese Alley,” “It”
Despite immense acclaim from critics and peers, Cass McCombs belongs to a small group of top-tier songwriters, also including Bill Callahan, Dan Bejar of Destroyer, and Bonnie “Prince” Billie, who have consistently eluded popular audiences despite years of high quality releases. Rooted stylistically in folk and alternative country but always spiraling outward into something else, McCombs deserves his reputation as one of the smartest writers working in music today, and on MANGY LOVE he combines his sharp wit with a surprisingly urgent and potent politicism. MANGY LOVE manages to stay consistently interesting by zigging when you expect it to zag, hopping from McCombs’ more well known sounds to Stan Getz-esque jazz to disco to crunchy blues-rock (not necessarily in that order). No matter what territory he ventures into, however, his arrangements, almost always centered around a melodic finger-picked electric guitar, are consistently tasteful and gorgeously understated.
Lyrically, McCombs is in the business of writing words that read like the kind of late 20th century poetry you’d find in an M.F.A. Literature class, but with a touch of a Kurt Vile-esque conversational tone that grounds it and makes the work feel less heady, despite the frequent abstract imagery and semi-academic pop culture and Greek myth references. There are times, in fact, where his words are actively held back by the music that they are set to (while “In a Chinese Alley” is a fine song, the lyrics themselves read as magnificently abstract poetry). Opening track “Bum Bum Bum,” with its themes of racism over a gently meandering musical accompaniment, acts exceptionally well as a thesis for the entire album as well as being one of its best tracks. The song comes across as highly cynical, and while McCombs laments the deadly effects of racism, the “bum bum bum” takes the place of a phrase like “so it goes,” a statement of satiation in the midst of deadly chaos.
MANGY LOVE’s musical diversity is also a strong suit, but as a result, there are few points where the listening experience truly sags to dull. “Rancid Girl” is the aforementioned crunchy blues-rock song, in which a narrator examines their relationship with a drug-addled teenager, and “Laughter is the Best Medicine” is the most fun listen on the record by far, adding saxophones, jazz flutes, and a few spoken words interspersed within, a la Barry White. “Opposite House” and “Medusa’s Outhouse” are more typical McCombs songs, but they are both gorgeously composed and settle into a gentle country groove. The low point comes with “Low Flyin’ Bird” and “Cry,” the first being a six-minute snoozer centered around a cajon and delayed acoustic guitar that just never takes off, and the second being suspiciously similar to Arcade Fire’s “Reflektor” and sees McCombs’s lyrics, as he says in the song, get “lost up [his] own ass.”
Following this unfortunate low point, McCombs really begins to take risks with his music. “Run Sister Run,” which sounds musically like a Latin-tinged version of the Dire Straits, features a fierce condemnation of sexism that may have failed if McCombs didn’t deliver it with a crackling yet understated energy. After this point, there’s a lot of quality music to be found; the abstract “In A Chinese Alley” and anti-consumerist “It” are the standouts from the last half, but MANGY LOVE manages a very strong finish.
The pieces of the puzzle don’t always fit perfectly, but with MANGY LOVE, McCombs further establishes that he has a unique musical and lyrical perspective, and by combining timely themes with a sense of fierce individual expression, he makes the best case he ever has for an entrance into the musical spotlight. Even if McCombs’s work is not always easily accessible, as his delivery makes his lyrics hard at times to decipher, MANGY LOVE is a work where it pays off to read the lyrics as you listen, multiple times, and see where it takes you.