By BEN RATLIFF
Cass McComb’s words are a black hole. “It is not wealth to have more than others,” this 38-year-old singer-songwriter intones on “It,” a serene and unsettling ballad from his new album, “Mangy Love.” And then, a bit later: “It is not health to take vitamins and exercise.” His lyrics, whether lofty or cranky, often imply that very little is what it seems and that we are all probably doing wrong, or paying into a rotten system. A song is a gift, but what kind of gift is this? What kind of dude is this?
By an unmarked route, Mr. McCombs has become one of the great songwriters of his time. His music, through nine albums and especially on “Mangy Love” — out Friday, Aug. 26, on Anti/Epitaph — is influenced by ’70s West Coast funk and the Grateful Dead continuum, has become light, patient and groovy. His boyish voice remains steady and even, pushing up into falsetto range. You want to trust it, even when you can’t face what it is telling you.
He’s a little unfashionable for indie rock and has only an indirect relationship with the jam-band scene. His songs are not anthems, confessions, protests or poetry. His characters give voice to paranoia, psychosis and pettiness, but their author isn’t telling you what to think. They can withhold crucial details and contain Beckett-level humor, dry and dark. His music is easy on the ears and unending pain on the logical and moral centers of the brain.
In the past, Mr. McCombs has been uncomfortable and unforthcoming in interviews — he doesn’t like self-aggrandizement — or has preferred they be conducted in unusual ways, such as by mail. But when we met last month, he asked only for a quiet place. Small and soft-spoken, he met me outside the American Museum of Natural History, and we walked around Central Park until we found an isolated bench, where he waited for my first move.
I told him I associated him with a Northern California tradition of mystical cynicism: the less cuddly aspects of the Dead up through the scrofulous noise of Flipper, the media-sabotage of Negativland, the death fixations of Metallica. He winced, then confirmed that all those groups were important to him growing up. But he didn’t feel regional in that way. He thought that New Yorkers were just the same. (He has a theory that everyone desires the apocalypse.) “Lou Reed seemed pretty cynical,” he said. “Woody Allen seems pretty cynical.”
That’s true, I said, but they are also sentimental, whereas in Mr. McCombs’s songs there is very little redemption. He narrowed his eyes. “What’s redemption?” he asked. That’s what kind of dude this is.
He was a little wary. He went monosyllabic when I asked about his upbringing. He grew up in Northern California in a bluegrass-playing family; his biography of moving from place to place as a young man, including a period in New York City during the early aughts, involved a lot of the word “drifting” rather than explanations of intent. (He splits his time now between the Bay Area and New York.)
But I mostly wanted to know what the songs on “Mangy Love” were about, and to my surprise, he obliged. “I usually don’t talk about my lyrics,” he said, “because people don’t ask.” Is that because he seems reluctant? “I have been unwilling in the past,” he allowed, “and then people stopped asking.”
I figured that “Opposite House” was about the human condition — “the ceiling’s on the floor,” “rain inside when it’s sunny out.” In fact, he said, the song is about mental illness. “It” seemed like a linguistic game, using ambiguous pronouns and referring to a life-changing event without providing a clear point of reference. Actually, no: Mr. McCombs said he once saw a U.F.O. As for “Run Sister Run,” an easy jam with an Antillean rhythm, I drew a blank. It seems like a jivey do-gooder’s praise-rap for womankind, but I couldn’t dope out the intent. (“Don’t call my sister no concubine,” the narrator cautions, grandiosely. “She is the mother of creation.”)
He explained that the song was written from the point of view of a “righteous dude” who — to paraphrase what he said — has one foot in Zuccotti Park and one foot up his own backside. “I’ve tried writing songs from a feminine perspective, and they fail, I think,” he said. “I wanted to write a song for my sisters but didn’t want to speak for them. So I figured I could just be someone who is not unlike me, and try to do what I can. You know, pitch in, or something.”
He laughed. Is it a song from the point of view of a male ally to women, then? “Part of me thinks I am a male ally,” he reasoned. “But it’s not really for me to say.” So even to call yourself a male ally is to be deluded? “Exactly,” he said. In talking to Mr. McCombs, the black hole assumes its own rules.
Toward the end of “Medusa’s Outhouse,” one of the record’s most musically beautiful and lyrically opaque songs, Mr. McCombs changes from singing to speaking. “If it’s so easy, you try,” he says, dryly. “Here. You try.” He repeats the line several times, as if rehearsing, wanting to get it right. What’s that about?
He referred to George Costanza in an episode of “Seinfeld,” obsessing over a comeback line for a co-worker, to the point where he flies to Ohio to deliver it, and the line bombs. But he allowed that there was a little autobiography in the thought. “I’m trying to demand respect, not just for me, but for my kind,” he declared. Who is his kind? “Working-class musicians who have been exploited and underappreciated and dismissed,” he said. Implicating himself again, he explained that he works in a business — the music business — that he finds embarrassingly corrupt and sexist.
But “if it’s so easy, you try” has a kind of Beckett-like, universal ring, too. I suggested it would look good on his tombstone. At that, his tightness disappeared: He laughed easily.