Heartmind by Cass McCombs


When I was studying for my English “O” level in 1970, my teacher, Brian Mitchell (“Mr. Mitchell”) explained to us that we would all be taking a “Spoken English” examination. We would either be awarded an “O” level in “English Language” or “English Language with Spoken English”. He told us not to worry about the spoken examination as “only an idiot ever fails this exam”. I failed the exam. It still irritates me that having spent 5 years in grammar schools being told to keep quiet and finding that nobody ever valued my opinion on anything, I would be an idiot if I didn’t speak well to a stranger. The exam took place in a small attic at the top of the school, where I had never been before. The examiner tried to engage me in conversation and I was tongue tied, monosyllabic, surly and uncommunicative. Much like I am now, probably. It’s ironic that I then spent 40 years as a teacher despite officially being a failure at speaking. The only thing I remember about this exam was that I was asked to read a passage about a chase and, as a follow up, I was asked if I had ever read anything similar. I mentioned “The Red Badge Of Courage”, which we had recently read in class. The book tells the story of Henry Fleming, who took part in the American Civil War on the side of The Union. His nervousness and anxiety about taking part in battle ensured that he survived his first conflict but when a second attack took place, he fled. Feeling ashamed at his actions, he longed for a wound, a “red badge of courage,” to prove that he was not a coward. The book was written by Stephen Crane, who was 23 years old at the time of its publication in 1894. The book is still known as one of the most realistic depictions of war, even though Stephen Crane was born after the Civil War ended. The book has been turned into a film twice. The first film was directed by John Huston and starred Audie Murphy, who himself was a highly decorated World War II veteran.

Susan Eloise Hinton is an American writer whose first novel, “The Outsiders”, was written when she was 15 years old in 1967. The book tells the story of two rival gangs: the working class “greasers” and the upper calls “socs”. Some schools in the U.S.A. have banned the book because of the depiction of teenagers involved in gang violence, smoking and drinking. However, in other schools, it is part of the English curriculum. In 1983, Francis Ford Coppola turned the novel into a film, starring Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, Diane Lane, Patrick Swayze and Tom Cruse.

In the summer of 1816, Mary Godwin, her future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and her step sister Claire Clairemont took a trip from Windsor to Geneva, in order to visit Claire’s lover, Lord Byron. During the visit, Byron suggested that he, Mary, Percy, and Byron’s physician, John Polidori, have a competition to write the best ghost story to pass time stuck indoors. Mary was just eighteen years old when she won the contest with her creation of “Frankenstein”. There have been over 70 films that feature Frankenstein.

On Cass McCombs’ tenth album, the last song on Side One is “Unproud Warrior“, which tells the story of a soldier returning from war and contemplating his past while reconciling this with an unfamiliar present and uncertain future. The song is less to do with the futility of war than contemplating the issues raised by Carl Jung in “Dreams”, of choices, consequences and responsibilities. The final verse of the song is “You were only seventeen when you enlisted. You remember SE Hinton wrote The Outsiders when she was just fifteen and Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was just nineteen. At twenty-three, Stephen Crane published The Red Badge Of Courage, which is still known as one of the most realistic depictions of war, even though Crane was born after the Civil War ended. Maybe sentiments of regret are not all that unrelatable. You’ve always taken lengths to be aware of your own choices”.

One of the lines in Barry McGuire’s “Eve Of Destruction” is “You’re old enough to kill, but not for voting“. Six years after this song came out, the voting age in the USA was lowered from from 21 to 18 and Barry McGuire claims that his song (written by P.F. Sloan) is the most influential song in the history of pop music because of this change. The song “Unproud Warrior” by Cass McCombs addresses the issue of how much responsibility can be placed on a young person. A 17 year old is old enough to kill and three young people in history wrote three outstanding books. The phrase “Maybe sentiments of regret are not all that unrelatable” is hard to decipher, mainly because it contains two negatives. Another way of phrasing it could be “We can all relate to your sentiments of regret. Your youth does not disqualify you from strong emotions”. The album is called “Heartmind” and Cass McCombs explained that “it’s about how the heart and the mind are room-mates. They live together and they get on each other’s nerves sometimes but they need each other. When they find each other, it’s a whole other spiritual feeling”. So, making sense of these strong emotions can lead to what he calls “a whole new character“. Using the brain to interpret and process strong emotions can lead to a higher plane of existence. Or, as Jonathan Richman put it, “I’ll prove my knowledge of what’s inside when I intercept you on the astral plane.”

“Heartmind” was inspired partly from the loss of three close friends, but the mood is often upbeat and humourous. The flippant way in which he has dealt with strong emotions on his previous nine albums has been fortified here by a healthy dose of sincerity. He has always sidestepped easy interpretation and the style of his music has danced stylistically between folk, art-pop, jazz, and country rock. His emotions on previous albums have only been revealed obliquely and his songs have been open to different analysis. Thus, he has remained a peripheral cult artist rather than garner the mainstream success that his undoubted talent would merit.

Music Is Blue” is a song about obsession as he reads a bleak itinerary of touring life: living off beer, running out of money, losing touch with reality. The message of this song permeates throughout “Heartmind” as it illuminates hard truths and concludes that complete honesty is a risk worth taking. Cass McCombs has moved on from mere music and is seeking enlightenment from his emotions. “Once upon a time, I told myself that music was all there was. Like a ghost town in quarantine. No road in, no road out.”

Karaoke” is a lovelorn contemplation that wonders whether all of our emotions are just second hand. Cass McCombs says “it’s a comedic song and there’s a question contained in the comedy – are all these failures of communication just part of some elaborate play? I’m a big proponent of humour in music.” He wonders whether he’s experiencing a real connection with someone or if they’re both just going through the motions. By quoting song titles such as “Visions Of Love” by Mariah Carey, “Under The Boardwalk” by The Drifters, “Stand By Your Man” by Tammy Wynette, “Your Love Is King” by Sade and “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” by Buddy Holly, he comically presents us with a singular example of how summoning up memories of old songs can be an acceptable substitute for real communication.

“New Earth” is a sleazy and chintzy slice of exotica – an inauthentic representation of an idealised South Seas Island – with bossa nova chords and artificial bird noises.

Krakatau” has an genuine Latin feel, accompanied by hand percussion which disguises the self loathing of the lyrics in which the singer brutally confesses his faults.”Take my impatience. Take my intolerance, hate and avarice. Take it from me now. Take my temptations. Take it from me now. Take my frustrations. I don’t need them anyhow. I’m gone to Krakatau. Take it from me now.”

In the cleverly arranged “A Blue, Blue Band,” a down-on-their-luck touring act develops a superpower which makes every audience member feel depressed (or “blue”).

Written for a departed friend, the sublimely smooth glide of “Belong To Heaven” is another example of how Cass McCombs can be emotionally direct. He describes his friend as being ‘’totally lunar’’ and ‘’a grease fire burning bright’’.

On “Heartmind”, he predicts that “Empty ketchup packets may inherit the city.” The conclusion of the track is a slow, spiritual jazz coda that closes the record in a sensuous gentle manner, bringing us all down gently from the brutal truth of the preceding 42 minutes.

“Heartmind” is an intelligent, entertaining suite of songs in which a variety of musical styles are used to illustrate an in depth analysis of the relationship between simple emotions and the brain’s ability to process and interpret them.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

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