On ‘Sleeping Volcanoes’, the first advance single from Tip of the Sphere, Cass McCombs tells it like it is whilst sounding uncannily like Sultans of Swing-era Mark Knopfler:

“Help us, Armageddon
[...]
We’re over it!”

It’s a prescient sentiment from a man who has always made a point of being out of step with the zeitgeist. Then again, misanthropy is timeless, right? We’ve always deserved to die. Sometimes we just deserve it a little bit more. And now is undeniably one of those times.

On his ninth album, the California-born, part-time-nomad splits the difference between the exhaustive, sprawling road trip through arcane Americana that was 2013’s Big Wheel and Others and the relative focus, accessibility and contemporariness of 2016’s Mangy Love. McCombs examines questions of identity, criminality, suicide and, of course, The End Times. It makes for a mixed bag of a listen, but, as is always the case with McCombs, never less than a fascinating one.

Bookended by two of his longest excursions into Deadheadsian jam-band fodder, Tip of the Sphere makes few concessions to the casual listener. Few albums begin with their troubadour hero riding off into the sunset, but that’s exactly what McCombs does over the spindly, zonked-out guitar solo of ‘I Followed The River South to What’, presumably as high as a kite. “What do you call yourself? If anything?” he asks, but by the time the coda has run its course, any notion of personal identity is immaterial.

That song’s counterpart, the album-closing ‘Rounder,’ trundles along on a similar horse-and-carriage rhythm, but takes even more idiosyncratic routes. If Cass is delighting at the absurd possibilities of the English vernacular on ‘I Followed the River’ (“If I had your dollar, you'll make my doggy wag”), on ‘Rounder’ he goes full Finnegans Wake with it:

“Were a radia gunslung
Were a murdream boysroom
On a slight of jadeself
Are you tired of drying, rounder?”

It’s fitting then, in a world where the meaning of words has seemingly been irrevocably corrupted, that the the song’s final six minutes are devoted to a wordless extended jam that glides on jazzy organ, funky guitar noodling, and the gentle gallop of a two-note bassline.

In between the two epics that are doomed to perpetually open and close the cyclical loop of the album’s “sphere,” we run the full gamut of McCombs’ stylistic touchstones. We get the glam-rock-stomp-via-lawless-west-doggerel of ‘The Great Pixley Train Robbery’; the gorgeous rolling romanticism of ‘Estrella’; the pseudo-mystical raga of ‘Real Life’; the country feedback and synth squall of ‘Sidewalk Bop After Suicide’; and the whispers over pedal steel guitar of ‘Prayer for Another Day’.

We also get ‘American Canyon Sutra’, a song that’s about as good as the pun in its name would suggest (that is: not good at all). Over cavernous, nocturnal bass, anxious clicks and Lynchian guitar stabs, McCombs delivers a spoken-word portrait of an America falling endlessly into a nightmarish abyss of sacred trash, Walmart-owned condos, and predominantly white cops. It’s like Talking Heads’ ‘The Listening Wind’ as produced by Barry Adamson; and it’s as heavy-handed and goofy as that sounds. But its biggest crime is arguably that it simply out-stays its welcome.

When Tip of the Sphere excels, however, it matches some of the many high points of McCombs’ storied career. 'Absentee’ is a gorgeous number that sounds like it could have fallen, half-asleep but ever-so-charming, out of Stephen Malkmus’ songbook, and is graced by a gloriously messy and yet barely perceptible saxophone part near its close. By inhabiting a stylistic voice that, knowing McCombs, may well just be an elaborate riff on the dire straits we find ourselves in (get it?), 'Sleeping Volcanoes’ is an instant inductee to the Cass McCombs canon; standing apart on an album that seems to go out of its way to avoid memorable hooks.

The lack of clear signposts has always been a hallmark of McCombs’ output. His albums are designed for you to get lost in. How willing you are to let go and just wander the desert will determine how much you get out of them. Take the languid tempos of Wit’s End or the freewheeling variety of Big Wheel; these are not albums that deliver easy answers, and Tip of the Sphere is no different. The clue is in the physical impossibility of its title. Parse McCombs’ lyrics and you’ll find that they’re dominated by questions, rhetorical and searching (“Tell me, how would I grieve?”; “What would your mama say, seeing you this way?”; “What good are words, if they never reach your ear?”). In the face of so much uncertainty, it’s tempting to think that armageddon is the only answer. Whilst not standing toe-to-toe with the very best of McComb’s discography, Tip of the Sphere is as good a soundtrack to The End Times as anything he’s done.