Cass McCombs is a madcap guitarist with a poetic streak wider than the Grand Canyon. The reclusive songwriter has delivered eight solo albums over the last thirteen years, gaining increased critical acclaim for his prolific, bizarre style. McCombs has always given voice to outsider perspectives or underground narratives, and his latest album doubles down on those ambitions. Mangy Love, out 8/ via Anti Records, delves into sociopolitical statement by inhabiting voices and characters that might not normally get a spotlight–a young girl moving to California during the Gold Rush for one, alongside addicts and abandoned women.
While most musicians would come off as puppeteers, McCombs transforms into a medium, letting various spirits flow through his sacred and profane presence. Fever dreams of American corruption and evocative, mythological imagery dovetail with the album’s clear debt to Philadelphia soul and a sheen of golden 70s folk-rock. McCombs dashed off a few notes about the album from his time-consuming tour in Europe, and his thoughts on the record are intriguing and playful as ever.
You introduced Mangy Love with “Opposite House,” a song that features Angel Olsen. How did you two get connected artistically and what drew you to collaborating with her? We met at a festival in the UK. Angel has this hardcore style I feel is uncommon, I relate to her disillusionment that maybe she would disagree she has, I don’t know. I sent her the track and she told me she was going to touch on the Chi-lites. Nail on the head, I said to myself. Of course it doesn’t sound anything like that but harmonically—it’s a suggestion that rings true. I’ve always been big into the Delphonics, the Stylistics, William DeVaughn who sang “Be thankful for what you got,” O’Jays, Teddy Pendergrass, all that great Philly stuff, but “Opposite House” honestly is probably more the Cure. And who knows what other influences we aren’t cognizant of, for music is mostly muscle memory.
The album title, Mangy Love, evokes a certain visceral roughness along with a sense of innocence. What was it about the title that summed up the album for you? Kurt Heasley told me album titles should be a sort of a hypothesis, or should encapsulate one’s ideas addressed on the record as a whole. In one way or another. However loose or cryptic, it’s up to you. That helped. To me, Mangy Love as a title has to do with the graphic itself—a crude doily heart scratched on the wall—reminds me of my good old dirty friends. And drunk sex. Never a good thing.
It feels like this album delves more into funk and 70s soft folk than some of your earlier work— more spoken word interludes, flutes, etc.–can you talk a little bit about the sonic influences? Previously, I never put much snuff into sonics. This time, Rob Schnapf really helped organize the tunes and discuss arrangements. I remember discussing Brothers Johnson, which is a fool’s errand. Shuggie Otis. Sly. Prince. Seventies AM country gold like “Wildfire” by Michael Martin Murphy. Wu-Tang. Whatever. I know not to enter with any hardline ideas because I always want to see what the musicians bring. It’s all about the living, the dead are resting peacefully; we’re the ones who are restless. And in the end, it has nothing to do with these “[character] studies.” They’re just temporary hosts. We knew from the lyrics we were making a record about gender and certain political clichés, so it was about patchworking a musical language for that.
“It’s all about the living, the dead are resting peacefully; we’re the ones who are restless.”
You wrote the album during a New York winter and while traveling through Ireland, how did these differing landscapes shape your writing? I love the filth and beauty of winters in New York, the film of black exhaust coating the snow, sprinkled by McDonald’s wrappers and Cheetos bags, drives one inside one’s self from an alien world. Oddly I was listening to a lot of merengue and Colombian music, Tropical music. Don’t know why. The cold forces you to react in unexpected ways, physically and emotionally, which I think is a simple enough place to sing from. In the winter you aren’t your best self, but what does that mean, “your best self”?
I love the last track, “I’m A Shoe,” because it feels like such a bleak, simple jam session. There’s something dejected about it, but also resigned. The lyrics are nearly verbatim from a real letter written by a little girl whose family was moving to the California mining town of Bodie during the Gold Rush. “Goodbye God,” she said. Absolutely heartbreaking. Growing up out west, I relate to her words and feeling that California is somehow
not completely in this world, but partly overlapping with another world
Mangy Love is out 8/26 via Anti Records. Get it here.