November 16, 2011

A Closer Look: Cass McCombs - "To Every Man His Chimera"

"To Every Man His Chimera," a song off Humor Risk, Cass McCombs' second full-length of 2011, unfortunately does not refer to a world where every man has his own fire-breathing lion-goat-serpent as a pet. Instead, 'chimera' here refers to an illusion fabricated by the mind, and in this case, it's one that haunts the narrator: "Not you again, I thought you died. / I thought you were killed on your wedding night." The track is a standout, not only for its peculiar title, but as one of Humor Risk's most potent moments and McCombs' best of the year, perhaps only following the unparalleled "County Line."

It turns out "To Every Man His Chimera" (also sometimes translated as "To Each His Chimera") is a poem in prose by French poet Charles Baudelaire. In the short work, a narrator watches a group of Roman soldiers pass by, each with giant chimeras adorning their armor. The narrator notes the soldiers consider the chimera a part of themselves and he wonders what affect it has on the men. Here's the work's last line: "but soon irresistible Indifference descended upon me, and I was more cruelly oppressed by its weight than those men had been by their crushing Chimeras." Sort of a cruel joke, right? Chimeras often come up in literature as projections of fears that men manufacture. In McCombs' own song, it's difficult to pin down the exact meaning: is the dead subject that returns a ghost or a projection of the narrator's? Is there a different narrator between the verse and the chorus, where 'Mary' is addressed? "I don't need a host to live," Cass sings in the chorus, and perhaps that Alien-esque imagery is coming from the mouth of the chimera itself?

What's unquestionable here is the quality of the songwriting and McComb's knack for imagery in his lyrics. Try the line "Peel of the latex fair-weather friend, is that supposed to be a nose?" or "California makes me sick, like trying with a rattlesnake your teeth to pick." Interspersed between McCombs' lyrics are background conversations, voice messages, dropped change, a dog barking, and small other clamoring noises. It's a dynamic and familiar setting sound-wise, as if Cass is playing right in the middle of a family's living room, invisible to all but the listener. Maybe the song itself is the chimera?

Pick up Humor Risk on vinyl from Domino.

Cass McCombs - "To Every Man His Chimera" (from Humor Risk)

Cass McCombs

1 comment:

  1. Both Humor Risk and Paris Spleen are awesome. Unfortunately, Paris Spleen is better. Baudelaire FTW.