Cass McCombs has positioned Humor Risk as the relatively light-hearted companion to the darkly ravishing Wit’s End from earlier this year. Musically, that’s almost true—the pounding drums of “The Same Thing” and the strummy folk-pop of “Robin Egg Blue” are more immediate than the painfully introverted and emotionally choked soft rock of Wit’s End. But lyrically, McCombs still favors pitch-black morality tales that leaven unrelenting fatalism and random tragedy with a world-weary wit. On “The Living Word,” he sets a sweetly romantic melody against a backdrop of philosophers and gurus—including Lao Tzu, Confucius, Ho Chi Minh, and L. Ron Hubbard—meeting up throughout history and laying down destructive belief systems. The grinding rock of “Mystery Mail” tells the story of two boyhood friends who launch a cross-country drug operation and wind up in prison, where the protagonist’s pal ends up “stabbed with a ballpoint pen / about sixty times by his cellmate, Charles.”
Being able to appreciate the humor embedded in the detailed, erudite carnage of McCombs’ songs greatly helps in appreciating his idiosyncratic (and potentially off-putting) style. At least this time, unlike on Wit’s End, McCombs dares to pick up the pace beyond that of a funeral march, which adds to the likeability of Risk’s excellent lead-off track “Love Thine Enemy,” a hypnotic drone that seethes like prime-era Elvis Costello as it depicts the give-and-take of relationships as a take-no-prisoners war of wills. Humor Risk might be another downer from this accomplished singer-songwriter, but its pulse beats strong as it bleeds.