Soft and sinister is a tricky balancing act for any troubadour to pull off — which might explain why fate has put only one Leonard Cohen on this Earth. But nomadic indie-folk songwriter Cass McCombs gives it his best on his fifth album, “Wit’s End,” meting out some of his slowest, sweetest and most punishing songs yet.
The brighter the tune, the bleaker the lyrics. “County Line” sounds like classic AM radio pop while McCombs plots his homecoming to a town where the “pain is never ending.” “The Lonely Doll” is a lithe little waltz about a girl “whose sadness wasn’t so small.” And “Buried Alive” putters along without a care while McCombs sings from the grave, quietly hissing at his “stinking corpse” neighbors.
Those three songs get “Wit’s End” off to a wonderful start, but the album’s remaining six cuts feel more labored, the words more inscrutable. That breezy-black balancing act requires a certain stamina that McCombs is still building.