Every few years I hear a Cass McCombs song that I’m incredibly taken by. 2011’s epic ‘County Line’. The Angel Olsen-backed ‘Opposite House’ of 2016. The weird piss metaphors of 2019’s ‘Confidence Man’. They all have this lilting, languid quality that some of the great folk songwriters do (I imagine the best Bob Dylan songs sound like this but hey I wouldn’t know). They casually ponder life through their observational tone and gorgeous guitar lines. You can get lost in them. But on the occasions that I’ve tried to get into one of his full length albums, I’ve struggled. They’ve felt inconsistent, and the other songs haven’t had the same effect on me.
In a fairly paltry month of August releases I thought I’d give his new one, Heartmind, a go. McCombs is somewhat of a veteran now (his first album was released in 2003), and this is reflected in this collection of seemingly effortless tracks. Heartmind is full of songs that feel so easy to listen to, it’s like you’ve heard them before. ‘Music is Blue’ has McCombs crashing through a tune about his relationship with the medium of music itself. ‘Karaoke’ questions the authenticity of his subject’s actions in love and in life. ‘New Earth’ feels like a satirical take on the idea of billionaires leaving Earth to start again on a new planet – and the wryness is heightened by its joyful and perky tone. These songs form a breezy and enjoyable opening trio.
‘New Earth’ is one of a couple of songs that employ repetition heavily. Repetition when used well can be incredibly effective of course, and it works well on this track. But when it isn’t, it can quickly become irksome, and that brings us to the downside of Heartmind. The languid quality of McCombs’ music can quickly turn into dreariness when the songs don’t click. ‘A Blue, Blue Band’ is the main culprit here. It uses repetition to distracting effect and feels numbingly dull. Each time I hear it, I wonder what the point of it is.
And when considering the album as a whole, it’s often very pleasant but doesn’t have anything that touches the best Cass McCombs songs I’ve heard. ‘Unproud Warrior’ has the warm, casual storytelling quality of ‘County Line’, but doesn’t progress enough across its 6 and a half minute runtime. ‘Krakatau’ is a musical outlier on here with its carnival feel but the song comes and goes without leaving much of an impression.
The closing title track picks up an underwhelming second half: its crunchy, reverberating guitars giving the record a satisfying feeling of finality. But the drab instrumental drone of its second half stops it from being truly great.
So Heartmind doesn’t do much to convince me about the merits of Cass McCombs’ music beyond great individual songs. But that’s ok. The critical esteem in which he’s held by many indicates that he has plenty of fans; his albums are simply not for me. I’ll always have those enigmatic tunes every once in a while.
Words by Tom Burrows