Before sitting down to write about Wit's End, an album I don't much like, I went back to read what I wrote about Cass McCombs' last album, Catacombs—an album I like quite a lot. There I wrote that its opener, "Dreams Come True Girl," is slightly alien to the songs that follow in that it's a more sophisticatedly assembled song than the others. In some way Wit's End's opener, "County Line," is also alien to the rest of its album. Not because it's got an inventive structure like "Dreams Come True Girl" but because of its feel—"Country Line" is warm, it aches. It's one of the best songs McCombs has ever written. It's a contrast to the rest of the album, which feels numb and turgid.
- Cass McCombs: County Line
I went on in my Catacombs review to describe the record like this:
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 inured to McCombs's clinically depressed Big Bird vocal style and dank, echoey production.
That description could work pretty well for Wit's End, too. Each of the eight songs are minimally arranged and last anywhere from four to nine minutes, McCombs clearly enamored of his verses at the expense of a decent chorus or, often, a worthwhile melody. The difference between Wit's End and Catacombs, however, is that Catacombs takes a turn at the midpoint and becomes, for McCombs at least, a much more lively album. There is a rhythm section, there's a change in pacing. In short, there's variety. Wit's End has almost none of those elements. A song that is built around its lyrics and lopes along as long as the narrative requires is not de facto a bad thing (see: most of Leonard Cohen's oeuvre), but the deadly dull pace of Wit's End's forty-seven minutes saps the record of its elegance.