I’m going to tell a story about a song, because I think it matters. Ten years ago, Cass McCombs recorded “Bobby, King of Boys Town,” a track that’s as good as any other. The lyrics are nothing more than a reel of boy’s room boasts and taunts (“Ain’t a man alive I fear,” “Where’d you learn to smoke?/ Cause you’re doin’ it all wrong”), yet from those spare strokes the image of a spit-cool foster kid emerges, a boy whose swagger masks everything you can imagine. All the words belong to Bobby, and McCombs fleshed them out with a character-defining groove, a shoulder-loose and cocksure rhythm somewhere between first base at the sock hop and a randy rocksteady jive. No “poor kid” heart-stringing, no juvie glorification, no judgment—just a stirring portrait that dances like the dickens every time you press play.
This is a gift.
Spanning 22 tracks and the great sprawl of a nation, Big Wheel and Others compiles more of these vital impressions than any of McCombs’ previous releases, documenting something so damned beautifully alive—so restless and sensual and swinging and true—the album accrues power by virtue of its breadth. How many other double albums could stand to be even longer? The titular “Others” aren’t a mess of B-sides and throwaways—following the manly-man trucker of “Big Wheel,” those others are all the dreamers, drifters, dealers, waitresses and wastrels populating the westbound highway. This isn’t the Disneyfied hoboing of that rabble-rouser with the illegitimate sons, nor is it the faithful road that’s no place to start a family. Working from cover-to-cover through the American Songbook, McCombs bears equal witness to the principled and the unscrupulous, delivering a travelogue of country folk, folk blues, cemetery blues, lounge jazz, free jazz, rockabilly, cock rock—you name it, it’s all represented.
The entirety of these competing strands could tumble together as a mess of fakebook curios, but McCombs binds the collection with devout craftsmanship and a roguish eye for unexpected proximities. Perhaps no track better exemplifies this aesthetic than “Morning Star”: teased by distant African drums and cruising to a pleasingly-buzzed shuffle, the rhythm captures the magic light of a sprint across white sands, of a top-down drive, of a campfire seduction, all while the lyrics casually spin from romantic to bawdy to violent to dispirited, any pretentious air deflated by the cosmic non-sequitur “What’s it like to shit in space?”
Those striking juxtapositions are nearly as deft in the slow-burning rocker “Joe Murder.” Undercutting the gruesome proper name, McCombs flashes the vivid image of a child’s parlor trick—“Who is Joe Murder?/ I found him in your ear/ pinching a penny/ where no one could hear”—the sleight of hand continuing as he further dusts the track with implications of cocaine, building tension as the band locks in like a backyard Pearl Jam, great spacious leads and portentous fills finally giving way to an addiction or madness personified by screeching peals of Naked City sax.
As mood and character consistently take the forefront, McCombs further cedes the spotlight to those friends and fellow travelers who’ve joined in to make the music. Rather than give the late Karen Black a quick one-off with “Brighter,” McCombs first performs his own version of the track, then allows the longtime actress to thoroughly upstage him with her “this-is-how-it’s-done” take on the same song. It’s easy and way too fucking common to appreciate someone after they’re gone, but McCombs recognized Karen Black while she was still here, and without a hint of kitsch or stunt-casting or charity—purely because it was powerfully right—he offered her star-turns on the Catacombs standout “Dreams Come True Girl” and the moving encore of “Brighter.”
This is a gift, and one which is extended across Big Wheel and Others. Joe Russo’s spiraling polyrhythms add a peripatetic spirit to “There Can Be Only One,” and the well-traveled drummer’s loose and evocative stickwork might steal the entire album were it not so unswervingly in sync. Likewise, ex-Broken Wester and sometime Radar Brother Dan Iead winds poignant lines of No Depression pedal steel through “Angel Blood” and “Sooner Cheat Death Than Fool Love”; Kevin Bouley contorts saxophone phrases from cool to unhinged, cutting wild across multiple tracks; guitarist Mike Bones flicks electric sparks into “Name Written In Water,” firing the graveyard blues just a few whiskeys south of the Mark Lanegan Band.
Though expert, the musicianship never overshadows the songs. It’s one thing to write about an Elderly Woman Behind The Counter In A Small Town, but a disconnect kicks in when the performance swells to an arena-ready climax. When McCombs steps into a dead-end diner, he doesn’t just sing the waitress’s song—he takes the part of the snakebit and struggling house band warming up in the lounge next door. In addition to pulling off a roadhouse-primed Thin Lizzy cover, the Big Wheel band kills it on a tight intermezzo of state fair jazz, the wordless “It Means A Lot To Know You Care” speaking all at once to something professional and ludicrous and desperate and profound.
Because of his gift for empathy and understatement, it’s easy to fall into a pattern of describing McCombs more by what he doesn’t do than by what he does, and because he says so few words on his own accord, McCombs is routinely misread. Perfect case in point: the narcotic waltz “You Saved My Life” has proved one of McComb’s most enduring songs, the gorgeous sway often portrayed as a loving ode to the singer’s wife and considered apt material for barefoot or formal weddings. The song itself, however, is as much a tragic joke as a giving of thanks—the narrative “I” was cruising through life without a care in the world until the “you” forced him to grasp the fragile preciousness of everything he stands to lose. Is that realization a blessing, or is it a curse?
Until the punning gimme of Humor Risk, McCombs was frequently considered dour and grim by those who didn’t catch the fleeting wink between the brutal and the absurd, and since McCombs dwells so little on his own iconography, he retains a reputation for being enigmatic and aloof. That personal remove, however, serves as a necessary act of creative self-preservation. Can Springsteen still sing “My name is Joe Roberts, I work for the state” and come across as anyone but The Boss? With Big Wheel and Others, McCombs further declares “solidarity with the poor and screwed,” walking in the shoes of those who don’t have a voice of their own. The introspective troubadour has never lacked representation—McCombs doesn’t need to sing that guy’s song—and any misunderstanding inevitably comes from those looking in for the songwriter while McCombs is busy looking out.