Maybe a minute passed before I knew I’d be singing “Karaoke” for the rest of my life. The second song on Heartmind, the tenth album by Cass McCombs, “Karaoke” is a god-level burst of power-pop perfection, as fetching as anything Cass has ever cut. The springy staccato guitar, the vaporized electric keys, the melody seemingly born for singing or clapping or dancing along: Cass triangulates a perch of his very own out among The Go-Betweens, The dB’s, and The Cure, and vibrates there, a beacon. And then, of course, there is the song’s playful if painful lyrical conceit—the lover who is making all the sacred motions of commitment but whose feelings may be no more deep or real than someone simply reading the lyrics for “Vision of Love” or “Stand by Your Man” from some crowded bar’s TV screen.
So after harmonizing alone with “Karaoke” for the twentieth time during a solo cross-country drive, I had to ask Cass for myself how it all went down: Was this heartbreak, or was it legit love? He paused, thought, then laughed. “Well, that’s the question,” he said slowly. “Neither?” Or maybe, he finally averred, both? That is—to me, anyway—the true joy of Heartmind, an eight-song album that feels more like a journey among assorted tuneful feelings, somehow shaped to meet whatever it is a particular listener needs, to mirror whatever they bring to these uniformly incandescent and tragicomic tracks. Cass has set the stage, but you get to pick the heroes and villains, the winners and losers, the jokes and the drags. He doesn’t want to give you the questions, let alone the answers.
To wit: Did the soldier at the center of the aching country epic “Unproud Warrior” abdicate responsibility or finally claim it? As the percussion shuffles and horns sigh beneath “Krakatau,” will you agree that you can be cleansed without being killed—or be anything better than you already are while still remaining yourself? Do you identify with being enraptured by music for so long that it ultimately drained you, too, as Cass suggests (maybe?) during the wiry opener, “Music Is Blue”? These are just a few of the questions that come to mind when I hear Heartmind, but I don’t even know if they’re the right questions. Still, I can now sing along to every word.