Singer-songwriter Cass McCombs has always been a compelling storyteller and Tip of the Sphere, his latest work, might just be his magnum opus. The album, released on Feb. 8, is a whirlwind of fantastical world-building, deft lyricism, and cathartic melodies.
The songs are a subtle departure from the spare, folksy aesthetic of McCombs’ past few albums. While 2016’s Mangy Love was delicate and earthy, Tip of the Sphere introduces a fuller, more robust sound which better accompanies the depth of the themes of loss and regret that his work explores.
“The Great Pixley Train Robbery,” the second track on the album, tells the story of a riotous railroad heist involving a fugitive, an insurance salesman, and an otherwise-nondescript passenger from Modesto, California. The details of the fictionalized robbery unfold against a backdrop of thundering percussions and galloping acoustic guitar to produce an atmosphere that perfectly accommodates the wildly-specific dystopian stick-up that McCombs describes.
Few songwriters can boast the kind of lyrical dexterity that McCombs has deployed over the years. In 2015, the artist penned “Bradley Manning,” a somber folk song that mournfully chronicles the tale of a real-life army private who was sentenced to 35 years in military prison for divulging classified documents to WikiLeaks. Four years later, McCombs has seamlessly transitioned from writing political protest ballads to churning out surrealist, dream-like melodramas.
The scope of his stories ranges from transcendental to mundane: “Tying Up Loose Ends,” the album’s melancholic centrepiece, finds its narrator picking through a box of old family photographs, unable to remember the name of the man pictured next to his Aunt Dorothy. McComb’s breadth of skill is equally as poignant on “Sleeping Volcanoes,” an existential and foreboding song about impending natural disaster.
Tip of the Sphere invites the world to see through the keen eyes of an overactive imagination. With his croaky vocals and warm melodies, McCombs beckons his listener into a weird and wonderful world they will never want to leave.