SONGWRITING Cass McCombs writes songs that feel like walking into a trap. It's clear that the quasi-itinerant singer-songwriter an old-fashioned term that seems to fit him well is more aware of genre than the average indie troubadour, which makes his songs easy to enter but difficult to penetrate or exit. His music is not of the confessional variety, though it is indirectly personal. String together the titles that make up his discography and you get some sense of how his coded, morphing symbols approximate but never equal the biographical C.M.: A (4AD, 2003), PREfection (2005), Dropping The Writ (Domino, 2007), and Catacombs (2009). And that's not even getting to his lyrics, which go about the work of making meaning and then suddenly self-cancel or erupt with the real.
"You Saved My Life," from McCombs' most recent and accomplished record, is a career apogee in this respect. A swooning lap steel and big blunt snare do much of the heavy lifting to make the tune eminently mixtapeable, but the gratitude suggested by the title is troubled by the hard pivoting action of the phrase, "And I can't blame you enough," and the wobbly delivery of "Blood to gulp and flesh to eat." McCombs' canniness has little to do with word games or enigma-baiting, though: McCombs may as well have wandered into the singer-songwriter room after a childhood spent listening to mersh rap radio and simply and unfussily picked up on forms he found useful. McCombs' music may be especially NPR-ready now, with the worn denim elbows of his current queasy Americana overtaking the Smiths/4AD dazzle that held sway over PREfection and surfaced on Dropping The Writ. Yet in comparison to a The Band-ripping band like Deer Tick, everything about McCombs' music remains to be said.
One of McCombs' strengths is the ability to modulate through moods over the course of an album while demanding a kind of deep semantic listening unusual in indie rock. Particularly with Catacombs, one gets the sense that Cass is a born Album Artist, the sort of person who understands the virtues of patience and can shear off the highs of his hits while packing filler with unexpected content. Though the quasi-punning Catacombs comes front-loaded with his most affecting tracks and ends with somewhat disposable, self-consciously lighter fare like "Jonesy Boy" and "One Way to Go," the relations between parts makes it difficult to skip over in-between jams like "Harmonia" and "My Sister, My Spouse." It helps, too, that these little coves of patience a formalist's trademark tend to be where he tries out some of his stringier lyrical ideas.
"This is what happens when a leitmotif implodes," McCombs sings on "Lionkiller Got Married," a sequel to Dropping The Writ's opening track and personal standard of sorts, "Lionkiller." He could be explaining his own approach to autobiography with the line. It just may be that his subject matter is as much the act of making sense as much about the point where the line falls off the page as it is about the sense he's making. None of it measures up to, say, Dylan-level fibs or automythology, but it serves an important purpose: you never get the feeling that there's a straight line from McCombs' intentions to your reception. This is not a dude in your living room relaying earthy, relatable feelings through his acoustic guitar.
It'd be a bit much to call McCombs an antihumanist, though: whatever slipperiness he manifests stems from a healthy distrust of settled meanings rather than a need to assert his control over his audience. Not to discount, either, that some of his contradictions seem to stem from guilelessness. That McCombs is clearly having fun even when he appears to be dead serious as with "The Executioner's Song," say sets his kind of innocence apart from the standard journo narratives of indie rock discovery. As great as Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago (Jagjaguwar, 2007) is, it will never live down the "dude goes into the forest and records awesome bummer breakup album" rap that's stamped across it, for the foreseeable future, like a "The Nice Price" sticker.
But McCombs' mercurial self-presentation seems less like the stamp of a "truer" authenticity than Bon Iver's than a sustained parry of that terrible word. Not to forget, either, that Catacombs has been lauded in Vice and given Pitchfork's Best New Music designation. Whether or not we've fussed our way into being able to describe what makes McCombs' music so difficult to digest, there's something tough and unyielding at its center. Partly I wonder whether this is what rock would sound like without Pavement, but mostly I listen. When it hits wrong, the boredom is palpable. But just as often Catacombs conveys the bottom falling out of meaning in gorgeous slow motion.
With the Papercuts, Girls
Sept. 9, 9 p.m. (doors 8 p.m.), $14$16
Great American Music Hall
859 O'Farrell, SF