Andrew Combs, ‘Sunday’: NPR
Alysse Gafkjen/Courtesy of the artist
There is a popular parable of uncertain origin that combines a simple premise with a seemingly simple question. Inside each of us, the tale asserts, there are two wolves: one fed on good things like truth and love, and the other emboldened by evil, greed and hatred. These wolves are always at odds, with whoever becomes stronger to take control of our spiritual lives. Armed with this knowledge, which wolf do you feed?
Sure, we’d all like to think we’re letting our good wolves have a feast, but real life doesn’t allow for such behavior. What happens when our behavior betrays our beliefs, inadvertently slipping that “bad” wolf a juicy steak? Worse still, what happens when we think of our belief system as an end in itself, praxis be damned? On his ambitious new album SundaysAndrew Combs grapples with these and other existential dilemmas, in the process describing the struggle to live with integrity in a world that demands otherwise.
Combs started working on Sundays in early 2021, following what he describes as a “mental breakdown” during the 2020 vacation, for which he sought medical treatment as well as alternative therapies like Transcendental Meditation. In the wake of that personal tumult, Combs turned to something that has given comfort to many during the pandemic: a routine. Every Sunday, he would head into the studio with co-producer Jordan Lehning and multi-instrumentalist Dominic Billett to record a song he had written during the week. Soon, something unlike anything Combs had done to date began to take shape.
Since its beginnings with Worried man in 2012, Combs generally operated in the nebulous genre of Americana, finding a comfortable niche for his quiet, introspective brand of center-left country music. Sundayshowever, is sonically closer to the work of Blake Mills (large Editable set, in particular, comes to mind, with its percussive guitar and reliance on dissonance to set the mood) or Radiohead‘s quieter, more vocal works, with barely a nasal lick to be heard. Combs and Lehning recorded Sundays entirely in mono, a creative restriction that also reflects the intimacy and immediacy of the tracks’ themes of isolation and introspection.
Pedal steel, that ubiquitous hallmark of roots music, appears only briefly on Sundays, played by Steelism’s Spencer Cullum on the lucid but lenient accusation of youthful overconfidence, “Adeline.” Instead, it’s Combs’ own chosen guitar that really sets the mood here, all rhythmic and rattling, brooding and a little stopped. Tyler Summers’ woodwinds, arranged by Lehning, converse with Combs throughout the LP, creating a discordant atmosphere that deftly evokes the dreadful haze of depression and anxiety. And Combs’ tenor, long one of the most deviously dynamic voices in the American genre, is at its best, with moments of sublime falsetto (“Anna Please”), shimmering vibrato (“Shall We Go”) and sweet vocals (“Drivel To A Rêver”).
On “Mark Of The Man,” Combs strips our societal ills of their usual frames (and, as such, their usual scapegoats), singing that “the fires rise higher” and “the poison of gunpowder “constitute “the mark of man, not the beast.” We can blame politics, organized religion, or even the devil himself, Combs seems to be saying, but these are monsters of our own making. And more importantly, only we can undo them.
The opening track “(God)less” affirms this, offering the reminder, “We are capable of blossoming and happiness / God still lives in ungodliness.” On “Still Water”, Combs suggests that the divinity is within us all, that “heaven is not just a small island but /a universal condition of the heart”, no doubt a nod to meditation. “Drivel To A Dream,” with its cinematic production and rich visuals, presents a familiar scene for anyone yearning for hope in the wake of great odds: “Hoping for the best of the worst / Still blessed but dying of thirst.”
To accompany Sundays, Combs, who is also a talented visual artist, painted a series of “earth divers”, mythological beings who dive deep into primeval waters to find lands from which the gods can create new worlds. In a letter describing the project, Combs writes: “Just like myth, in the alchemy of life, we must penetrate the depths of dark water, confusion, storm, the churning of reality, before reappear with something fundamental.” In finding the line between his own journey out of darkness and our societal need to do the same, Combs offers a kind of roadmap of redemption, although it has no defined end point. It’s not self-help; they are field notes from a weary diver.
Sundays ends with “Shall We Go”, a funeral song inspired by Samuel Beckett’s absurd play Waiting for Godot whose arrangement slowly transforms from a faint hum to a swelling crescendo. “What are we waiting for?” Combs asks, “something to ease the mind” or “some kind of spark?” It doesn’t matter: “It’s not here, it’s down the road”, he concludes, not lamenting this absence but encouraging himself and inviting us to continue, to continue to probe the darkness for the foundations of ‘a better world. After all, if we don’t, who will? The wolves are hungry.