Hold Time was a colossal disappointment. My apologies to M. Ward-ites everywhere but now that the dust has settled on his most recent recording, it's clear how forgettable it has become. Thankfully that is not the situation for Cass McCombs' Catacombs, released a few short months after M. Ward delivered his latest. Catacombs is everything Hold Time should have been—bold, poetic, an absolutely beautiful offering rattling between the parameters of modern folk music. For the first time in a flawless run, M. Ward was overtly safe, if not outright dull; the record's finest moment, "Rave On," was after all originally made famous by Buddy Holly. McCombs takes the opposite approach, a loose and assertive songwriter with an uncompromising approach to penning music.
Of course, good luck getting McCombs to talk about any of this. Part of his allure is a firm reluctance to partake in the sausage factory that is the behind-the-scenes promotional circuit. A whispered recluse content in the shadows, McCombs doesn't want to talk about himself. Ever. The roving folk singer—he lives in Los Angeles, or Chicago, or possibly Baltimore—goes kicking and screaming into interviews, revealing little, dragging along press materials that insist he's not a "wet blanket," and politely requesting that listeners focus less on his (alleged) prickly persona and more on his craft.
"I just don't see my life as incredibly interesting," explains McCombs over the phone from Los Angeles. "Or at least, not interesting enough to talk about to another person." While that is not exactly a comment associated with someone immersed in a field of extroverted narcissists, it follows the same path carved out by a few fellow songwriters—Bob Dylan and Lou Reed come to mind—hesitant to hand over the pound of flesh required by us media folk. But while we wait with palms out for McCombs to explain his songs, persona, or at least tell us where he lives, the singer insists that the "trivialities of life sometimes can compromise the art." And, of course, he's right.
His art—truly virgin and uncompromised—is that of lush folk music stumbling about in a hazy fog of thick melodies and fragile vocals. McCombs' arrangements have a timeless quality, serving as unobtrusive templates for the artist to spill his words upon, and it's never sounded better than on Catacombs (an album that, it should be mentioned, phonetically seems to mirror the singer's name). There is the political numbness of "Don't Vote," the barren and striking chorus ("Here I stand, alive unto you") of "You Saved My Life," and the confusing nature of "My Sister, My Spouse."
Catacombs' best moment is quick in arriving, and the wondrous, romantic apathy of opening track, "Dreams Come True Girl," highlights the album. Buoyed by a guest appearance by the enigmatic Karen Black, the song unfurls like a lost Roy Orbison gem, shuffling along with a carefree pace as McCombs croons, "You're not my dream girl/You're not my reality girl." Black's contribution is subtle and restrained, her voice first surfacing as a series of distant (wordless?) coos, before emerging as a druggy chant while the song winds down. It's an odd pairing—a withdrawn singer with a cloudy background paired with a cult icon whose life has been well documented in film and beyond—that works effortlessly, with Black's sweeping voice intertwining with McCombs' soft delivery. Beyond being just a devastating song, it's enough to reinforce the belief that the less you know about someone, the better.