“Big Wheel” could have been just another road song with axle rhythms, blacktop imagery and a Wrangler guitar riff, but Cass McCombs had to Cass McCombs it. The protagonist is no happy-go-lucky blue-collar Joe with 16 tons at his disposal; he’s a borderline sociopath with a hard-on for John Deere and a near-apocalyptic view of manliness. Scoring in truck stops, rhapsodizing on the beauty of “electric storms over lumber yards,” spouting flag-waving hyperbole, this is a guy so cut off from his own homosexuality that he flaunts it as a form of menace. “Take back your flowers and your fance and priss,” he sneers. “I’m a man because I say I am, now give me a kiss.” Forget the Flying J — you don’t want to meet this guy coming out of your speakers.
Throughout his seventh album, this northern Californian takes an almost sadistic delight in denying the audience pleasure. Brutal characterizations and hard philosophic truths are nothing new for him, but on past albums like Catacombs (2009) and Humor Risk (2011), they were tempered with soft-rock tropes and queen-of-the-hop ’50s fluff. Big Wheel and Others is considerably darker. The arrangements are often skeletal — blunt, repeated figures, clipped, tamped-down melodies, a virtual absence of vocal harmony. The moments of beauty and solace are undermined or complicated in intriguing ways. “Morning Star” threads African percussion into languid acoustic strumming, but its tale of hippie-ish spirituality turns oddly ugly: “Pull me up to see your face/ What’s it like to shit in space?” “Satan Is My Toy” is a ZZ Top-style blues jam with a theme of religious hypocrisy, as a nun, a mullah and a rabbi cloak their sexual kinks in pseudo-divine pursuits. Even “Brighter!,” featuring the late actress Karen Black, lopes along, but then contradicts itself: “Brighter, my ass,” Black cracks.
McCombs’s talents are hardly in question. He’s ambitious, brainy, a provocateur; you may not like what you’re feeling, but hey, you’re feeling it. Riding shotgun in a bulldozer with a jingoistic bully may not exactly be fun, but at least McCombs isn’t stuck in neutral.