Cass McCombs – Wit's End: exclusive album stream

It's the fifth album from the mysterious Californian songwriter – so what can we learn from the man behind the music?

Five albums and one EP in, and Cass McCombs still cuts an enigmatic figure. Here's what we do know: the Californian singer-songwriter wrote some of his best songs while surfing couches and living in cars between the west and east coast of America. Even those at the label who picked McCombs up for 2007's Dropping the Writ don't seem to have got close to the man. "I won't pretend that I'll ever fully understand Cass," writes Domino Records' Kris Gillespie, giving the kind of candid account of an artist you never read in press releases.

No matter, for McCombs is an incredibly honest and perpetually driven songwriter. Wit's End floats on a sea of lugubrious guitars and laconically delivered lines that get underneath your skin, such as opener County Line, when McCombs suddenly sings: "You never really tried to love me."

Buried Alive twists the most suffocating of imagery – "When I wake up to the breath of the old, on a sea of black" – against a subdued melody and tenderly strummed guitar. On album closer A Knock Upon the Door, McCombs channels Leonard Cohen circa Songs of Love and Hate in an aureate but ominous finale to the album.

McCombs has always retained a sense of privacy in his songwriting, the kind which led Gillespie to advise listeners to enjoy Wit's End alone, late at night. When the San Francisco Chronicle described him as "delivering too much information in his songwriting, and too little in conversation", I can believe it. I've had several interview requests politely declined, and was most recently asked to write a letter to McCombs in lieu of your usual Q&A. He may make a frustrating interviewee, but better a man with little to say in front of a journalist than one with little to say in front of a microphone.

Wit's End is out now on Domino Records


Rosie Swash

The GuardianTramp

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