Release Date: Feb 8, 2019
Record label: Anti / Epitaph
Cass McCombs is open about his tendency to borrow from his predecessors. "I always approach my own music as a listener of other people's music," he told Red Bull Music Academy in 2017, several months after the release of his last album, Mangy Love. "My music is a response to the music that I love." On McCombs' ninth album, Tip of the Sphere, his hands are more visible than usual as they thumb through a familiar record collection.
The world may come to an end any day now, but it won't be glitchy electronica that soundtracks our inevitable armageddon - it's more likely to be 'Tip of the Sphere', Cass McCombs' ninth full-length (and perhaps his most mesmeric, at that). Here, Cass - a veteran NYC storyteller - recalculates his very specific aesthetic for something slightly looser, more jovial. He sheds the pandemic existentialism of 2016's 'Mangy Love' for something less pervasive and all-encompassing; the farther along 'Tip of the Sphere' takes you, however, the more sincere - albeit slightly dismal - he sounds.
While 2016 saw McCombs lending his hand to 4AD's Day of the Dead compilation, to the acclaim of a feature piece in the Sunday Arts & Leisure section of The New York Times and an appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, his newest offering doesn't veer too far off course from his modus operandi. But while Tip of the Sphere spans constant themes of destination and solace that McCombs is known to explore, he continues to stand as a songwriter of real conviction, gifting some of his most incandescent songs to date. While it may be easy enough to pigeonhole McCombs, his ability to draw boundaries and loosen those conceptions and subtleties speak to his savviness in the ways he delivers a finished song.
Press downloads of Cass McCombs' ninth album, Tip of the Sphere, were accompanied by a PDF note from McCombs explaining the recording of the album. In it, he muses, "What do I remember from this experience? Only emotional things dictated by the city." McCombs has always come off as a true folk artist in that he lives a bit outside time, processing his life through the experiences and people that the universe presents him and turning that process into song. Though Tip of the Sphere's recording process largely differs from McCombs' last several albums in that it was recorded pretty quickly in one studio, rather than pieced together over time, it is amusing and particularly appropriate that he remains as unassuming and appreciative as ever.
On 'Sleeping Volcanoes', the first advance single from Tip of the Sphere, Cass McCombs tells it like it is whilst sounding uncannily like Sultans of Swing-era Mark Knopfler: "Help us, Armageddon [...] We're over it!" It's a prescient sentiment from a man who has always made a point of being out of step with the zeitgeist. Then again, misanthropy is timeless, right? We've always deserved to die. Sometimes we just deserve it a little bit more.
A little less a set of songs and more the spirit of a warm, smoke-shrouded Sunday afternoon spent somewhere in a generously upholstered chair, Tip of the Sphere arrives three years after singer/songwriter Cass McCombs' first Top 40 independent album, 2016's Mangy Love. Definitely not shooting for the charts here -- not that he ever was -- the album places McCombs' often sharp, sometimes meandering or halted ruminations in a context of a cosmic folk with sleepy '70s album rock inspirations. Musically as well as lyrically lost in thought for most of its playing time of nearly an hour, Tip of the Sphere opens with "I Followed the River South to What," a drifting, seven-and-a-half-minute track that hovers over a single chord.
The Californian acoustic king noodles away to himself on this sporadically breezy ninth album, apparently oblivious as to whether you're listening or not Cass McCombs doesn't come to you. Over the course of nine studio albums, the Californian singer-songwriter has affected the persona of the grizzled drifter, turning in deceptively pretty songs that wallow in the bleakness of the world (2016 track 'Bum Bum Bum' juxtaposed its goofy name and laidback acoustic riff with brutal lyrics: "We're all at war… How long until / This river of blood congeals?). It's rough stuff, and McCombs clearly revels in confounding expectations, once telling an interviewer: "We're all the same; we all destroy what we love".
"W hat do you call yourself, if anything?" wonders the opening couplet of Cass McCombs' new album, Tip of the Sphere. The words were probably not intended as navel gazing. But they lend themselves well to the enigma wrapped in a wayfarer that is McCombs. He has long been a hard singer-songwriter to get hold of, literally and metaphorically.
Photo by SIlvia Gray On his latest album, Tip of the Sphere, Cass McCombs sounds like he's both on an alternate earth and right at the heart of this one. Moments of the album ground themselves in current culture, while others track more abstractly. Even the album title's imagery makes sense as it suggests an impossibility. His world of vagrants and "cinnamon towers" and hopeful Armageddons turns our world into a strictly imaginative experience that somehow accurately reflects its source.