04 February 2023

I think I can see the lights: Cass McCombs’ “County Line”

County Line, the single from Cass McCombs’ 2011 album Wit's End, was accompanied by two entirely different music videos. The first time I listened to this song, in 2011, it was watching the video below, directed by Aaron Brown. Sometime later, this video was taken down from Domino's YouTube channel and replaced with another before being re-uploaded on McCombs' own channel years later. But if you watch that original video, you might not be surprised to hear that it permanently colored my impression of a piece of music which has proved, for me, immortal.

Content warning: opioid use, blood.

Grisly and intimate but ultimately undisclosing, this muzzy, scuzzy DV montage of needles, noodles, bar burlesques and box fans immediately set to boiling the foreboding latent in the song it furnishes. And like the song, it’s an enigma — one which, like a William Eggleston photo (or like his own night vision videotape Stranded in Canton) threatens banality as much as abjection — but I care, maybe more than I should — I feel spoken to — and I want to know. Years later, I'm still groping in the dark. Where did this come from? Who are these people? What's this about? A county? I can smell the columbine... Colorado?

In the language of flowers, the columbine is “the emblem of deceived lovers, ingratitude, faithlessness.” McCombs addresses his maldit, in a surprising gesture of animism, to a county — not even a town — a country music affectation? An inversion of Chuck Berry’s paeans to driving? Or an admission of the sort of desultory, suburban anonymity snaked through in Twin Peaks: The Return?

“You never even tried to love me,” he accuses in a stinging falsetto, like a cotton ball soaked with alcohol. Whatever the source of his disappointment, I feel it as my own: people and houses and bars among which you hoped you could sow love and community, somehow somewhere let down on an unshored drift toward perfidy and oblivion. But following that bitter burp of chagrin is a flare of warmth in the back of the throat, a caramel aftertaste: pity.

Though the emotion is difficult, the color is familiar. Brushed drums, that bleary Rhodes, an organ's prickly whine. The sound of driving backward into the past, like opening the door to your old house in a dream: more ambivalence than mere nostalgia. Better than any other retro paraphrase I know of, County Line stows a dagger in the boot of shaggy FM folk rock, arming these affable cues with a poignant and credible nausea.

Partly this is down to the exquisite subtlety of the accompaniment: the pentagram of left-hand e-piano descending from the first invocation of the title, the lean into the organ which refreshes the chorus halfway through, the bashful alternate picking on the slightly out of tune guitar, its sparking to life in the coda, the crescendo of tom hits underlining “columbine.”

Like Bill Eyden’s drudgy percussion on A Whiter Shade of Pale, the drums on County Line pave the narcotic groove with a gristly articulation — hesitating, almost amateurish at first blush, but as the song unfurls, these eggshell taps and rumpled fills reveal, like another secret, an extremely sensitive and dynamic Dixie soul feel. The march-like duple pulse seems to simultaneously canter forward and straggle behind, perfect for conjuring that twin sensation of propulsion and inertia — of being pulled inexorably backward — that is so key to the song’s planet-struck spell.

This ominous note is sounded as soon as you hit play. Dimming the lights with a baleful B minor (on my way), a twinge of misplaced nostalgia moves us to A (old county), then we slide down the neck of the bass to the tonic D (hoping nothing’s), wince with apprehension at an uncertain F♯ (changed), choke back the bile of a rueful E minor (pain), and raise our gaze once again to the horizon’s infinite A (never ending).

A stunning conspiracy of words and music. And weirdly unique in Cass McCombs’ catalog. He has other good songs — Brighter!, Morning Shadows, I Went To The Hospital, It’s Getting Colder — but for all his occult allusions and cape-twirls, there’s nothing else this ambiguous, this consummately realized, with this vicarious power — nothing that I hang from my rearview mirror like my own personal amulet the way I do County Line.