Heartmind, the tenth recording by Cass McCombs, is a more present record from the multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter. McCombs explores new terrain but keeps what he’s learned along the way in his back pocket. From the first track, “Music is Blue,” there is energy in the guitar licks and vocals. Where his previous album, 2019’s Tip of the Sphere, was a bit misty, cloudy with reverb and synths, here, the melodic movement is more animated and less blurry. McCombs has moved away, slightly, from obscuring his music and lyrics, making this set of songs much clearer and easier to connect with.
Even with softer moments like “New Earth,” which uses bird noises and ethereal backing noises, McCombs keeps his vocals at the forefront. It works, to say the least. Though it’s a clear move toward pop, that’s not a bad thing; his indie-folk sound has simply expanded, and that’s a laudable path for an artist continuing to explore himself and his inspirations, especially this far into his career. “Today is the birth of a new world,” he sings, and his music reflects that nicely.
One theme that runs through his work is the mundane: the couch-crashing, fast-food-eating, breaking-down-van landscape that many artists, and folks in general, can relate to. Even the unexpected “Krakatau” (though he has written about volcanoes before) is carefully playful and darkly telling about its inspirations. “Take my temptations, take my frustrations,” he sings. These are everyday feelings that erupt and though perhaps cliché, ring true enough. It is the music alongside the lyrics that prevent such tracks from becoming overlooked, dismissed.
From bluesy vibes to country chords to dream-pop synths, Heartmind keeps the momentum it started off with and runs with it. The title track is a bit more retrospective of his archive, looking back on what he’s written/composed before. It’s an eight-minute closing showpiece that tells you, “We’re at an end.” With a solo saxophone and a distant rumbling in the soundscape that would speakers vibrate, it takes its time.
McCombs has almost been recording for 20 years, and he has traveled a long way from albums like 2003’s A or 2007’s Dropping the Writ. Where he once embraced an aesthetic more like that of Neil Young—voice hazy, a bit scratchy—he has truly come into his own as an artist with his own clear and specific sound. More confident and wise enough to shift his art in new directions, Heartmind is an album that’s likely to resonate with old fans and newer listeners alike. McCombs continues to evolve and surpass his own strongest works so far, creating a new sonic space to inhabit, to linger, to sing, and enjoy.
Born in Krasnoyarsk, Russia, Konstantin Nicholas Rega currently attends East Anglia's famous MA in Creative Writing with the Ink, Sweat and Tears Scholarship. He is a professional musician, the former host/producer of Jazz Jams on CSRfm 97.4, and twice a Dan Veach Prize for Younger Poets finalist. He is the Fiction Editor for Crack the Spine and a contributor to The Black Lion Journal. He also blogs.