Catacombs begins with its most ambitious track, "Dreams Come True Girl." It's really one song nestled within another, beginning simply with a sparsely arranged but bouncy chorus, verse, and chorus. Then it segues into what at first feels like a bridge but is actually a series of new verses (with new melodies, in a new key) trading off with brief guitar flourishes rather than that original chorus. When that chorus does finally return, it's sung simultaneously with the original verse, now given voice with new accent by Karen Black, who closes the song out with some humorous moans and lyrical riffing. It's a strange, inventive, and pretty rewarding song once you sink into it (though it took me a few listens before I was able to).
The rest of Catacombs is not as complicated; in fact, the more I listen to it, the more alien that first track starts to feel from the rest of the record. That's not a good or bad thing—Catacombs is plenty compelling for many reasons beyond its opener. At any rate the rest of the album feels more of a piece, as Cass McCombs approaches the remaining ten songs in a similar fashion. The music is simple—each song built on just a few chords and sparse arrangements, their length determined more by the story McCombs wants to tell than by a typical verse-chorus-bridge pop structure. "Prima Donna," for instance, is built around a simple two-chord progression and is all verses, colored only by a little trumpet vamp toward the end. "Don't Vote" feels much longer than its five and a half minutes, whereas "The Executioner's Song" seems to pass right by because your mind and ears have by now become so enured to McCombs's clinically depressed Big Bird vocal style and dank, echoey production.
Then, at the record's midpoint, McCombs's approach suddenly clicks, and Catacombs elevates into one of the most starkly wonderful albums I've heard all year.
It's "Harmonia," the longest track on the album, that turns everything around. The song is buoyed by some stunningly gorgeous lapsteel which has the effect of coloring McCombs's dim cave into a homey, firelit living room. The rhythm section, too, seems to have finally shown up, propelling the song (gently) in a way such as to subtly pick up the pace of the dragging album. That rhythm section is also responsible for another of the album's highlights, "Lionkiller Got Married"—a gritty, tough number pushed along by a pulsing clap-along beat.
Really, the whole last half of this album is fantastic—the uncomfortable "My Sister, My Spouse," the jaunty "One Way to Go," the easygoing "Jonesy Boy." None are too far removed the tack McCombs takes on the first half of the record, but they feel discernable from each other, and their music and lyrics simply seem to lock in better. The consistently high quality of these last five or six songs impel you to return to the first half of the record to give it another chance. And indeed, "Prima Donna" and "You Saved My Life" seem to become stronger with repeated listens. They start to feel more human, less like formal exercises. I've had Catacombs for two or three weeks and it continues to get better and better each time I put it on.