I was introduced to Bright Eyes and Cursive at the same time. They were both essential to shaping my high school brain,from the way I thought and believed in art to the way I colored my life. Bright Eyes was more prolific and critically acclaimed, releasing several albums in the time it took for Cursive to drop one. So I listened to Bright Eyes more and eventually they became the "main" band of these teenage years.
It bothers me when people don't get Cursive. When they like or dislike them because they sound like some derivation of Thrice, it's disappointing. Underneath the alt-rock chord thrashing, there's some deeply raw writing that deserves more credit. Tim Kasher seems to rip into his soul for his audience, even at the cost of alienating them, even at the cost of strange meta commentary about the song he's singing. He gets to you, if you listen closely.
Cursive's last album was Happy Hollow, a concept about a fictional small town and its hypocrisies, its complex social troubles, and most of all its religion. Cursive always does concept albums. Domestica, one of their best, was the image of a young marriage run through the wood chipper of divorce. The Ugly Organ saw a dark, cello-flavored look at the nature of expressive art and sadness exploitation. The thing is, when you sing about the dark recesses of your mind so often, at some point you run out of things to say. Once you've admitted everything, even admitting your admittance, you're empty. A lot of bands run into this, Bright Eyes included, and there are different options: You can start to tell stories about other people, with some detachment, or you can get political/philosophical. Happy Hollow did both, and as Pitchfork said, they became a "words band."
It was about priests and sin and god and fallacies of small town americana. It was decently crafted as a story, but nothing felt as moody and full of too true honesty as their previous albums had. It was good, but a different mode.
Enter their latest album, the unfortunately titled, Mama, I'm Swollen. The album art, tracklist and title did not inspire confidence in me. I figured we were in for a concept albm about puberty and bodily fluids and songs about sexual abuse. I don't know where I got all that from, but it was the image I constructed from the Cursive I imagine. I was ready for the detachment and the stories. What I got, instead, was one of the best Cursive albums in years.
1. In The Now - A manic song about running to hell. We're wearing out our heels, says Kasher. The sounds here are high strung supernatural stuff: alien crescendos, panicked chords, schizophrenic skittering guitar. Kasher goes for the existential and decries the curse of rational thought, of being self-aware, of ever leaving the cave: "Don't want to live in the now / don't want to know what I know."
2. From The Hips - We start off with a quiet, sparsely populated sonic soundscape. It's almost jazzy. It speeds up incrementally, with a tumble of drums, but is still a pretty subdued song until the golden moment, a punk rock tempo shift: "I hate this damn enlightenment," it goes. "We were better off as animaaaals!" He holds that last word, and then, out of nowhere, a yelp: "Right?" And then the drums starts running, the guitars pick up, the trumpets show up and now we're dancing. "We're at our best when it's from our hips." The words here shine not necessarily in their craft, but in how convincing Kasher's personal investment is. Truth, or at least the appearance of truth, warts and all, has always been his strong point. It may be unhealthy, even uncomfortable, and you may even disagree that consciousness is a burden. But you'll buy that Kasher believe sit, and you'll buy that for 4 minutes it eats him alive. The rage here is mournful, and eventually he just yells, because what else is there left to do?
3. I Couldn't Love You - Probably my favorite track on the album. At the beginning we get this flute that sounds like something I would hear on an SNES game like Chrono Trigger, but barring that association they make it fit. It gets really good when Kasher peaks emotionally, and he does it all the time in this song: "Love's an affliction, no it's a cure, it's a contradiction / It harms, it heals, adores, it abhors / I couldn't love you anymore." There's a powerful gravity he invokes in the most hysterical, hyperbolic words. "I couldn't love you any more" is repeated probably a dozen times, and it's angry and barely holding together. This is Cursive on the brink and back, and that's what they know to do.
The point of the song seems to lie in the omission from the song's title: "anymore" or "any more." The distinction is important. In a bipolar song going back and forth between the greatness and worthlessness of love, the space makes a big difference. I could love you no longer versus I have maxed out my love for thee. Even by the song's end, when Tim's shreds his voice between these two extremes but never comes down on one side. It's a representation of conflict, and he wants it to feel like the end of the world.
4. Donkeys - Creepy music box sound and ominous trumpets. Tim employs a kinda creepy falsetto and I swear there's a deep, barely detectable voice, like an undercurrent, mixed in the far background of every line. I imagine that's the Devil doing backup vocals. There's a lot of singable melody in an otherwise ethereal soundscape made up of droning noise. "I'm going to pleasure island I ain't comin' back home," he sings as the beat picks up, and it's over already: "We may be donkeys but at least we have a tale to tell." I'm gonna need a lyric sheet to digest this one.
5. Caveman - Another song about ignorance being bliss because consciousness is complicated. "Don't wanna choose, don't wanna pick," to "I don't want no upward mobility" seals it. It is some dour shit, basically an existential variant on suicidal depression. Despite this, it's a pretty catchy, bouncing track, with some good trumpet work with a nice side of rock organ.
6. We're Going to Hell - The first thing I like is the steady, keyboard-like organ/string sound. Just two notes. It's clean, unsettling in its sterility and works well with the song's minimalism. Here, the deep voice undercurrent is back and more apparent, but still mostly hidden without headphones. A flourish of piano here, a pick of guitar there, and you can mostly excuse the awkward chorus hook: "We're going to hell / we're going to hell / my friends." It's almost catchy! The strings towards the end sound like a mournful violin played over an old phonograph. It works despite the potential for unbearable angst.
7. Mama I'm Satan - As much as I dig the album so far, they really dropped the ball on naming the songs. How stupid do you feel saying, "That song 'Mama I'm Satan?' is pretty outrageous"? It starts with a good beat, a bass line I'd like to learn, and I'm reminded of the maniac intro of the first track, except reigned in with focus on the rhythm section. "I'm writing out a confession / Every record I've written has left me smitten / A career in masturbation / All in all we're pawns / The ego of mankind stirs in us all" it goes, and wow, you've pretty much just said all there is to be said there, Tim. Purely and shamefully honest Cursive. The music continues in a sonic rabbit hole until the emotional climax, a cathartic explosion that can only be written in caps to give them emotional justice: "I CAST YOU OUT / I CAST YOU OUT / I CAST YOU OUT / I'LL DRAG YOU OUT / I'LL DRIVE YOU OUT / I'LL DRUG YOU OUT" and it just goes on like that for few measures. It borders on frightening, and if you're into that like I am, congratulations, lets go listen to catastrophic shit together.
8. Let Me Up - We begin with Kasher using his falsetto again to the contrast of that Demon Voice backed up by warped noises, subtle bass and the rest of the familiar aesthetic that the 7 previous tracks have established. There's some nice arrangement here, with fluttering flutes and tempo shifts into marching speeds. "Why won't you let me up," he says, almost conversationally, 2 minutes in. A minute later, we get a big old classic rising action that drops out into a gentle guitar and ethereal echoed voice, all meditating on the constant, "Let me up." They do the hellfire and brimstone climax trick again here, and they ought to worry about diminishing that novelty, but it hasn't happened yet. Finishing the pattern of bringing us to the edge and back, it drops once more into softness to end the song on guitar feedback.
9. Mama, I'm Swollen - Title track is catchy, almost jazzy, were it not for the vocals. "Born beneath the blood red sun," appears to be the hook with more than Beelzebub doing backup. It seems like there's even a feminine contrast backup there, like all the backup singers at once. The urgency builds at 1:50 as Kasher sings, either surrounded by chaos or possessed by it: "I am the body, I am the blood, the earthquake and the flood / I am the cancer born and growing in each and everyone." The portrait evokes the idea of going insane, and so it's not a pleasant song per se, but it feels like an important gear in the overall machinery of the album's concept.
10. What Have I Done? - Is 10 tracks a little lightweight? It feels like there's a lot of recycled themes, but then again, it's a concept album. The track is mostly the singular Kasher voice amidst vague ambient ringing. The writing here feels explicitly non-fiction, more stream-of-consciousness and less constructing metaphors. Here, he's holed up in an El Paso hotel, trying to write, "scratching lyrics on paper plates" -- which are actually pictured in the CD booklet and contain a lot of the song lyrics. He hits me with the point: "I spent the best years of my life waiting on the best years of my life - so what's there to write about?" There's a voyeuristic quality to enjoying his work at this point, and if you've been conditioned to like Cursive for years, this will prick that soft spot. "What have I done?" The regret is palpable. I'm reminded of the B-side, "No News is Good News" which has similar worries: "I'm only getting older and less interesting."
It becomes more of a band affair at 2:35 or so. The vocals get increasingly yearning, describing himself as "a man with no memoirs." It's hard to sing about being boring, or having nothing to sing about, but damn does he try. Suddenly he desperately, with a panicked and quivering voice, tries to convince himself of a brighter future: "You're young and you're gonna / You're gonna be someone / And you're old and you're a / You're ashamed of what you've become / Well take a look around ya / You're preaching to the choir!" Then the hard strums of the main riff breaks through, and we have purely draining "What have I done?!" repetition which, as you can see, warrants an interrobang. There's a real sense of getting it all out here in the last minute, of driving the tank empty. The result is a listening experience that requires an investment, and if they've earned it, the desperation of this song will wipe you clean.
Overall? Sure, maybe the lyrics get a little too blatant, little too indulgent in its angst. Maybe the ideas aren't exactly fresh and kind of overused. But I think it's a remarkable piece of dark-red-on-black work. In criticizing music we see the darkness trick played a lot, but it's worth it to remember that sometimes it's more than just a reliable cliche; some dudes know how to pull it off very well.
After an uneven last effort, it's a relief to be significantly taken in by a new Cursive album. It's like Michael Jordan coming back to the bulls and seeing, yeah, he' still got it. Even if he is wearing #45. "From the Hips" and "I Couldn't Love You" are the stand outs for me, earning their place in my iTunes circulation Valhalla.
It bodes well for longtime Cursive fans, especially when bands so often these days grow beyond their original style, whether it be because they've matured, or because they have the artistic urge to explore and grow, or because they've run out of material. Did Cursive run out? I don't know. But evidently they're not done yet.
Even if it is a case of Kasher actively looking for misery it still feels authentic. The nakedness is so startling it's tempting to cast it as immature, but if you indulge a little bit, you'll find this sort of thing has its place. It doesn't always fire, but when it does, it reminds you what's so great about indulgence in the first place. It's as if nothing else matters except music's role as a pressure release valve. Honesty is endearing, and darkness does stir in all of us. That's all I want to know from a Cursive song.