ALBUM REVIEW: Cass McCombs “Big Wheel and Others”

Cass McCombs Big Wheel and Others hi-res cover HTM

In his decade-long career, Cass McCombs has produced seven full-length albums, all deeply interior and intricately crafted, and all known—to varying extents—as meandering, inaccessible folk music that mirrors the artist’s own nomadic lifestyle. Californian by birth, McCombs retains a distinctly West Coast-Americana vibe, but his wistful and unspecifically nostalgic songs conjure up a wandering life more than they evoke any one place. Big Wheel and Others matches older work in this respect, but is twice the length of any album McCombs has previously released.

Anything this hefty—it’s technically a double album, though there’s no noticeable break in continuity—will get you thinking about the passage of time, if only because of how long it takes to listen to it. Hypnotically repetitious sections in songs such as “Joe Murder,” “Brighter!” and “Satan Is My Toy” emerge out of long stretches of chilly, lonesome guitar passages. These extra moments of stretched-out music make Big Wheel spacious. This isn’t a euphemism for boring—although the listening experience is a commitment—at worst, it’s inscrutable. Like walking through a thick forest along a poorly-demarcated footpath, the album disorients and occasionally discourages. Then, unpredictably, trees clear and give way onto a view of some lake or mountainside (and then, kapow! A money shot, so spectacular and flabbergastingly beautiful that all the inconveniences of getting there seem niggling.) Both the Karen Black version of “Brighter!” and “Burning of the Temple, 2012” make for shimmering payoffs.

There are a few things about this album that I can only explain by imagining that McCombs intended to further prolong, and thus further heighten, these payoffs. I see no reason why three audio clips from the 1970 documentary Sean, about a four year old living in a hippie house in Haight-Ashbury, should make their way onto this album, for example. Wedged between gorgeous songs like “Name Written in Water” and “Dealing”, there are a couple of short instrumental tracks that feel comparatively pointless. McCombs collaborated heavily on this album—four or five people play on almost every track—and occasionally the influence seems to further cloud McCombs’ already complex vision for the album.

Unlike a traditonal double album, Big Wheel consists of a single, fatiguing spiral of songs, all leading somewhere increasingly interior and, at the same time, increasingly ambitous. Towards the end of the album, “Name Written In Water” waxes suddenly self-conscious: These lines are my last verse/They might well be remembered also as my first/And possibly even as my worst. The intimacy of this album is present but subtle, because any lyric that borders on confessional will certainly careen into obscure or far-flung within a verse or two, or may even grandly reference Hamlet (“What dreams may come, when shuffled off this mortal coil,/Must give us pause,” said the Danish Royal). If Big Wheel‘s pace drags at times, it also works a kind of magic: the inner ramblings translate to external ones, conjuring a journey that’s equal parts through the one you take through Old, Weird America, and the one that runs through your own head.

Listen to Cass McCombs, “There Can Only Be One”, via Soundcloud here:

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