Despite still residing in Nashville, the connotations of this fact are becoming more deceptive with every new record Andrew Combs produces. Never one to rest on his laurels and becoming more prolific in the process, Combs has subtly reinvented himself once again on his latest long player Ideal Man, released on Friday.
Taking production outside Nashville for the first time has resulted in an shrewd aesthetic shift, most evident on his opening track ‘Stars of Longing’, which applies scraggy electric guitar inflections and fuzzy solos to the more familiar mild-mannered melodies. ‘Ideal Man’ follows and on the surface is perhaps more typical of the thirty-two year olds previous output, but there’s a more threatening synth soundscape present behind the simple acoustic timbre. Where 2017’s Canyons of My Mind dwelled on the impact of fatherhood, there is a suggestion on this album that he is inspired by a more militant ideology when he sings “I covet the coyote, Flashing his teeth, One mission, one motto. A mouth full of meat” on this song.
That’s not to say that this album is an unrecognisable re-invention. Far from it in fact. The album is still built around Combs’ rich and harmonious vocals and on songs such as ‘Like a Feather’ and ‘Save Somebody Else’ with its lavish electric guitar, which weaves effortlessly amongst Combs’ acoustic rhythms, there is a sense that he is not completely ready to remove the influence of Nashville completely.
No, these stylistic shifts are subtly incorporated, almost imperceptibly. ‘Hide and Seek’ is a gentle crooner but the tapestry of sounds is complimented by darkly shimmering synths which become more amplified as the song progresses, perhaps revealing his former obsession with Radiohead’s electronic soundscapes, but instead of these moments reflecting more epic pretensions, the song gently fades away, never outstaying its welcome. The intro to ‘Dry Eyes’ calls up the spirit of the Pixies and is a bit more of a clattering affair, imbued with distorted guitar tones and clashing percussion, but Combs is controlled throughout, maintaining the rich rootsy vocals which retain that link to his earlier origins.
There was perhaps an expectation that after the unpredictable 5 Covers And A Song EP, the new record would perhaps be even more experimental, even more of a deviation from those Nashville influences. At the end of the day, this isn’t the case. An Andrew Combs record is always a personal one and the telling of his stories appears to require that familiar structure. Thankfully though, there is enough musical invention to go along with the Radiohead cadence and lyrical references that permeate the entire record that we can forgive the safe, slightly repetitive pace of each song.