The Walmart Mysticism of Cass McCombs

With an apocalyptic hum, the songwriter tells stories of solipsists and idealists on his new record ‘Tip of the Sphere.’

“I wish to give myself into your hands here, a fugitive from justice, to be held a prisoner until the state authorities of California and the postal authorities of the United States are notified and can act on the matter,” John R. Griffith wrote to the Sacramento Daily Union on March 12, 1892. He was confessing to a train robbery that had occured a month earlier, a few miles south of Pixley, California, a desert town between Fresno and Bakersfield. Two men had died. Griffith and his two accomplices, he insisted, had made off with $7,000 worth in gold.

Griffith was lying, and the Daily Union wasn’t fooled. “It is stated by those who know him that Griffith is of unsound mind,” a follow-up beneath his supposed confession read. He’d been in and out of the asylum before eventually being taken out of a facility in Napa, stuck on a whaling ship, and placed under watchful guard. He had nothing to do with the robbery at Pixley. “It is probably that he has found the life of the whaling vessel anything but pleasant and, not seeing convenient means of escape, has hit upon this plan for getting away,” one of Griffiths’s acquaintances told the newspaper.

According to Cass McCombs—whose winding and wide-open new album Tip of the Sphere is out this Friday, February 8 on Anti——the Pixley train robbery was “the Russia scandal of its day—big, big news.” Back in the 19th century, anyone could say they were there on the train, that they wielded the pistol, that they made off with the riches. And if they built those fictions into a good enough story and told it with a dangerous enough glint in their eye, they might even earn some notoriety. “The way it was back then, it didn’t matter if you were telling a truth or not,” McCombs says in a tone so soft that it almost loses out to the telephone’s white noise. “It was a culture of storytelling. People would come from village to village and tell their far-out tale, and everyone would pay to hear this crazy person’s story about how they were the train robber.”

Born out of improvisation and unconventionally poetic, Tip of the Sphere—McCombs’s ninth album and first since 2016’s Mangy Love—resists easy interpretation. It is the work of a man who reads the Bhagavad Gita, spends lots of time thinking about Walmart, and treats the Gold Rush like a biblical creation story. Characters shuffle in and out of McCombs’s throat, as they always have—solipsists, mystics, idealists. And with the exception of the stark, almost industrial-sounding “American Canyon Sutra,” it is an inviting record, full of slide fills and open chords.

But there’s an apocalyptic hum behind it, whether McCombs is drawling “Help me Armageddon!” on “Sleeping Volcanoes” or asking “Who are all these people?” on “Tying Up Loose Ends.” It’s a record for the end of the world, albeit one that sounds like it could have been made at any point in the last half-century, with its country inflections, floating melodies, and psychedelic digressions.

On “The Great Pixley Train Robbery,” the album’s second song, McCombs quotes directly from Griffiths’s false confession, shuffling the lines around until they fit a rhythm. In McCombs’s mouth, Griffiths is just as much a disturbed man at sea as he is a disembodied soothsayer: “In hope of salvation / For surely I’ll be found before port / Before Postal authorities can act,” he sings, “I surrender myself unto the reward.”

Like Griffiths, McCombs is a raconteur, a man with no fixed address, and a man who seems worried about the fate of his soul in the midst of chaos. When I called McCombs last month, he was in California, where he has spent a lot of his life, a world away from Brooklyn, where he recorded the new album and cut his teeth as a songwriter. Between long pauses, he talked about composition, capitalism, and California—digressing occasionally, as he does in his songs, to offer a memory or an idea that’s eased into his mind. Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

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