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”.
His previous album, ‘Mangy Love’, wasn’t exactly a commercial breakthrough, but did distil his knack for a knotty riff and hardboiled truism, cracking a few top 50 end-of-year album lists. Even so, the subject matter remained gnarly, the long-winded grooves anything but immediate – and in that respect ‘Tip of the Sphere’ isn’t much different. ‘The Great Pixley Train Robbery’ is close to a great alt-pop song, slabs of acoustic power chords tumbling over one another as McCombs spins a killer heist tale inspired by an 1800s newspaper clipping (“We forced 7000 in gold / Two were killed in the melee / A fireman of the train / And a passenger from Modesto”). When the guitar solo unspools, you feel like you’ve jumped onboard.
But of course this is an outlier, and not particularly representative of the record. There are, for sure, runaway moments – the rolling jazz piano of ‘Absentee’, the cracked Americana of the woozy ‘Sidewalk Bop After Suicide’ – but on the whole this is Cass doing his thing, noodling away to himself.
You may sometimes wonder if he cares whether you’re there or not. The final track, ‘Rounder’, is 10 minutes and nine seconds long, an electric guitar refrain repeatedly meandering back to the start, which is impressively audacious – but you also forget it’s playing. On opener ‘I Followed The River South To What’, McCombs yelps abrasively over another looped arrangement, interrupting its zen. He’s a unique talent, no doubt, and has once again made a work on his terms. It’s at times an exasperating listen, but that’s kind of the point.