Mama, I'm Swollen
By Mike Randall
The wind of change has certainly blown through the land of Cursive since their last release in 2006. Which, of course, is no different than the continuously prolonged period that seemingly separates every Cursive record of the new millennium. Lineup changes, extended disappearances and breakup rumors are all par for the course during the band’s 15-year run, now improbably advancing with the release of their seventh full-length, Mama, I’m Swollen.
The odds were more heavily stacked against Cursive this time out. Complicating matters is the fact most band members live in different parts of the country, and gone from the mix is drummer Clint Schnase, replaced by the steady hands of Cornbread Compton (formerly of Engine Down). Then again, Cursive seems to make their best music in the face of adversity or trying times (see 2003’s breakthrough The Ugly Organ or 2006’s Happy Hollow). Which is just what they’ve done with Mama: make a fantastic musical record.
Cursive has always been a band immune to stylistic magnetism, skipping around from emo to punk to pop and everything in between, often during the same song. That diversity continues here, with a slightly more structured and straightforward approach. Their sound is as layered and ambitious as ever before, with the one constant the ever-presence of a seemingly trademark loud-soft dynamic. Frontman Tim Kasher excels in arranging a mix of instruments to give the music an almost theatrical texture looming creepily at nightfall. Nowhere is this done better than the hugely cathartic and melodic, “I Couldn’t Love You,” a spot-on Cure impression that sounds like Kasher leading an emo big band. Kasher sings with the confidence and swagger of Julian Casablancas fronting the Stray Cats during the catchy “Caveman,” utilizing orchestral hooks and his typically introspective lines like, “I wanna unlearn what I’ve learned…find a place I can’t be found” to build one of the record’s shining moments. Cursive sounds completely sinister during the slow-moving “We’re Going To Hell,” as Kasher references Poe in a falsetto above layers of organ, guitar, keyboard, violin and piano.
Whereas Mama finds Cursive at their most musically cohesive and developed, it falls short in its writing. Kasher’s heart-on-sleeve lyrics have become slightly too elementary and on the surface, although his societal angst does come off more manageable than his personal angst. The issues and topics, as always with Cursive, are relatable, but lack the surprise of its instrumental backing. “I’m at my best when I’m at my worst,” Kasher reveals over dreamy pop reminiscent of Peter, Bjorn and John during “From The Hips,” singing about the experience of sex being the closest thing to feeling born again and how making a baby is the ultimate reward. The expected tracks about confidence problems (“Mama, I’m Swollen) and familial issues (“Mama, I’m Satan”) are littered with forgettable lines (“I’m writing out a confession/Every record I’ve written has left me smitten”), but the songs are fortunately salvaged by impressively layered epic guitar theatrics and an aggressive, manic sonic blitz that much better portrays the darkness of mankind than any lyric. And, at this point in the band’s career, a song about not wanting to act your age (“Donkeys”) seems a tad too juvenile for a band that takes its subject matter very seriously.
Lyrical misfires aside, Cursive must be commended for being so musically inventive this deep into their career. It might take a while to put out a record, but it’s clearly not a result of complacency. They refuse to adhere to any set of rules other than building a song using as many or as few ingredients as necessary, and they’re still at their best when they avert the norm - odd time signatures, eerie textures, jangling instruments, and, of course, conflicting internal logistics. When you’re cooking something as complex as Mama, I’m Swollen, there’s bound to be some overuse of some things and under-use of others, but once balanced, the mix is still pretty darn tasty.