The following statements may or may not be true about nomadic singer-songwriter Cass McCombs: He was born a Scorpio in 1977. Los Angeles is his current, but no doubt temporary, home. Furthermore, on his birth: if the lyrics to "Lion Killer" from his 2007 album "Dropping the Writ" are to be believed, he was "born in a hospital that was very big and white." Whatever you say, Mr. McCombs (if that is indeed your real name).
One fact has been verified: The reclusive artist, whose austere fifth album, "Wit's End," came out in April, is not talking to the press. In the past, he's interacted with the media very little, and with excruciating reluctance, at that. Instead, he is communicating through letters sent through the post, as if there were no telephone or Internet. The Arcade Fire, which stirred up nostalgia for the lost art of letter writing on its last album, would be proud.
Not that McCombs betrays much in the way of hard facts or personal information in his correspondence. A couple of weeks after he received a list of interview questions, McCombs sent back a one-page letter that interjected rare insights on his record between tales of wandering around Santa Monica and Echo Park Lake, where he noticed bird droppings and thought "Good for those ducks, keeping their park the way they like it."
As meandering as McCombs might be in letter and in life, his album, about three years in the making and recorded in homes and studios around the country, reveals a more meticulous resolve. In a sealed-off suite of eight brooding songs of confessional folk, McCombs presents an introspective mind grappling with romantic failure, personality upheavals and a preoccupation with formality more akin to 19th century poetry than a musician touted by Stereogum. A musician's musician, his fans include Fleet Foxes' Robin Pecknold and fellow pop craftsman Andrew Bird.
"Wit's End" takes a darker, more monastic tone than any of McCombs' previous works. There are also references to the occult, namely the cabala, astrology and tarot.
"Lyrics are my racket," McCombs wrote in his letter, "music is play, the fluff stuff." On "The Lonely Doll," a velvet-lined music box of a song, McCombs showcases a series of tightly rhymed verses like "a portrait painted from truth/but imagined to soothe/for Beauty, eternal in youth/loves pity, compassion, and ruth." A waltz beat jeweled by the celesta, the instrument famously used in "The Nutcracker," is fit for the most delicate of demi-plies.
Kris Gillespie, the U.S. general manager of Domino Records, McCombs' musical homestead since 2007, said that it was McCombs' facility with language that first attracted him. "When you see the lyrics on the printed page, there's such an economy to them that they're almost minimalist. But when he sings them, they become these vivid, detailed stories somehow."
Though McCombs waves off the stuff of his melodies, there's no denying that the economy of his lyrics is replicated in the compositions, which deftly carry considerable emotional weight. They don't demand attention at first but these are elaborate yet restrained constructions with details to behold, like the soulful Hammond organ on "County Line" or the medieval woodwind, the chalumeau, on the nine-minute closer, "A Knock Upon the Door."
"County Line," the closest thing to a single on the album, is more than five minutes of subdued sorrow, every road marker a reminder of what didn't work. McCombs renders the chorus in a falsetto that's reminiscent of some soft rock tune that'd be piped out of the speakers at a beachside dive in 1978.
But that's not the way McCombs hears it. "To me," McCombs wrote, "'County Line' is a straight-up R&B song. I wish some real singer would redo it with their own version, so I don't have to hear my whiteboy voice anymore."
For his occasional moments of playfulness, "Wit's End" mostly captures a taciturn spirit. McCombs isn't interested in illuminating more of his life besides what's already in the songs. "I'm disinterested in the lives of artists," he wrote, "so I don't see why anyone would be interested in mine.... I don't spend a lot of time thinking about my own problems."
Local experimental pop musician Ariel Pink, who has played with McCombs on tour and shares many musician-friends, says that McCombs is "a serious guy. He's soft-spoken but you can tell he's got a temper."
Gillespie said that his relationship with McCombs is "one of the most intense I've had professionally," but also one he feels fortunate to have.
It's all there, like in "Hermit's Cave," which shifts from a humble, nearly amiable recounting of his year of isolation to a cathartic but maybe masochistic release. "Source of life," he sings, "come as prisoner of love," while a thwack, which sounds like it could be on human flesh, repeats in the background.
The shift is one of the many brave and startling turns on the album. "He's an honest, serious songwriter in an age that's not so serious," Pink said. "He spins great poetry along with his loping, roving, beautiful voice. That's what people want out of music, don't they?"