He is an enigma, to say the least. Despite a bevy of critical acclaim — including the lofty designation of “unobtrusively brilliant” by famed English DJ John Peel — the folk songster known as Cass McCombs is undeniably elusive. He’s lived in cars, bussed from California to New York and back, and seems only inclined to let death impede his nomadic lifestyle. His tombstone, he claims, will read, “Home at last.” It’s through his albums, and not his interviews, that the wandering wayfarer gives snapshots of his own existence.
Humor Risk is one such recording and a welcome follow-up to April’s Wit’s End. The meager eight-song track list belies its 40-minute runtime, which allows McCombs to construct a glossy, subdued dreamscape as a foundation for the album. What springs forth is a hodgepodge of mild, often listless pieces blending into each other, creating a structurally sound album lacking in diversity.
The record begins with “Love Thine Enemy,” a track built upon its rough, simplistic rhythm. As McCombs recites the song’s title and tells the listener to “Hate the lack of sincerity,” it’s not a tough command to follow. Humor Risk is ultimately a disingenuous attempt at lo-fi hipness, and while the result is top-shelf background noise, it makes for a tedious bit of legitimate music. Much like McCombs himself, his latest work seems to meander without direction, failing to settle on a common theme — picture Humor Risk as a lazy river through a thicket of underwhelming guitar riffs and basic drum beats.
The one saving grace for such a lesson in monotony is the work’s mood: From the get-go, the album suffers from a serious case of the doldrums, even in those tracks that appear to be more upbeat. But it does dullness well. In some instances, this leads to a curious mash-up of dispositions — “The Same Thing” echoes a surrealist’s Simon and Garfunkel. However, the atmosphere is best employed in “To Every Man His Chimera,” a curiously named yet evocative composition. McCombs’s somber intonations reveal a narrator wracked with conflict, and the track seems like the perfect complement to searching for answers in the bottom of a highball glass.
“Mystery Mail” is clearly the album’s point of pride — an eight-minute story recounting the correspondence between two dope dealers, one of whom has punched his ticket to the penitentiary. The song is uncharacteristically humorous and buoyant, and it serves to show that Cass McCombs is capable of optimistic, hook-filled tales, should he eventually choose to pen them. Yet even with this shoo-in for first single, the fundamental problems remain: The same tired riff repeats endlessly, and the only source of variation is McCombs’s voice. While this formula may have worked in previous records, it falls flat on Humor Risk.
It’s clear the Californian vagabond has talent, but unfortunately, his lyrical ability vastly outweighs any skill with instrumentation. What’s left is a humdrum stab at indie folk music — one that can’t quite hit its mark.