Mama, I'm Swollen
Author: Mia Clarke
03/09/2009 | Pitchforkmedia.com | www.pitchfork.com | Album Review
Since the release of their breakthrough album, The Ugly Organ, in 2003, Cursive have taken three-year sabbaticals between recordings. Fans waited until 2006 for Happy Hollow, which showed the quartet developing in leaps and bounds musically while earnestly exploring themes such as the conflict of religion in North American society and the depressing blandness of suburban life. It signaled an enterprising departure for the group, both lyrically and melodically, and seemed to open up abundant possibilities for their future development, as though Cursive could go in any number of directions. So it's a little disappointing that their latest full-length, Mama, I'm Swollen, rarely strays far beyond the most palpable and predictable emo-punk. It's a straight shot of melodramatic misery and despair from beginning to end.
During a tour in 2007, original drummer Clint Schnase left Cursive and was replaced by Cornbread Compton of Engine Down, whose fantastic beats really make their mark on Mama, I'm Swollen. Singer Tim Kasher, also of fellow Saddle Creek band the Good Life, has more than proved his mettle as a lyricist in the past. Here he turns his attention to an obsession with hell, the worthlessness of humanity, and the Peter Pan Syndrome of adults who want to "live life duty free" ("Cavemen") or fuck away their fears ("From the Hips"). Kasher's words, like his vocal delivery, veer from whisper to anguished yowl. At times he is on top form, particularly on "We're Going to Hell" and "Mama, I'm Satan". But lines such as "I'm at my best when I'm at my worst" and "Every record I've written has left me smitten/ It's a career in masturbation" sound like they belong in a teenager's journal and feel somewhat pathetic coming from the mouth of a 34-year-old-- an opinion that Kasher is no doubt slamming throughout the record in his defense of social nonconformity. All the same, it's a bit humdrum in light of what he's capable of.
Musically, Cursive's range is subtler here compared to their previous albums, but there are some satisfying occasions when everything pulls together nicely. Shifting time signatures keep the more straightforward songs from getting dull, and there are plenty of thoughtful guitar hooks interlaced with brass sections, strings, and an intermittent flute. Unfortunately, it's the occasional appearance of these additional instruments that sparks the most excitement while listening to this record. The final song, "What Have I Done", a tale of a man holed up in an El Paso motel scratching lyrics on paper plates instead of writing a great novel, turns out to be the album's most memorable track. It impresses with its swell of electronic ambiance, growling bass, and triumphantly dejected chorus as Kasher keeps screaming "What have I done, what have I done, what have I done!" until he is out of breath.
Considering their devout following, Cursive fans are likely to be divided by Mama, I'm Swollen. There is of course a huge market for their kind of angst-ridden emo, and in many ways-- particularly lyrically-- this album sounds like it's been lifted straight from the emo handbook, which may well satisfy many listeners. For the less committed, however, the lack of the band's usual wit and musical inventiveness will be missed.
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