Saddle Creek | Cursive | Reviews


Mama, I'm Swollen

Author: Scott Elingburg
03/25/2009 | | | Album Review
If life has ever been transcendentally fulfilling or satisfying for Cursive frontman Tim Kasher and his bandmates then the last place to look for proof would be on any of their myriad releases. Yet, Cursive transcend the notion of poorly wrought emo (thankfully, that element was exorcised by one of their first releases) and have sought to redefine themselves by moving from the insular to the open, from the politics of desire to the politics of normalcy, and from songwriting to storytelling. Additionally, the band has always traversed the territories that encompass the weight of religion, God, and spirituality, but never managed to arrive at a different conclusion from the one which they began: God does not exist, and mankind, left to their own devices will, inevitably, fuck things up.

There's no discernible concept or story on Mama, I'm Swollen, unlike previous LPs before this one, even though the album's title may suggest a sort of death-bed lamentation of a missing or forgotten childhood. There are, however, recurring themes that occasionally supply pieces to a larger picture. Lust, desperation, and struggle rear their horned heads from song to song, but the prevailing theme seems to be Hell and our inevitable march towards it—at least according to many of the songs' narrators. "We're wearing out our heels/ on a road to Hell," is the middle verse from opener "In the Now;" "mama's thumping her Bible/ she says we're going to Hell," the narrator observes in "Donkeys;" and, lest there be any doubt of where we are headed, there's an entire song dedicated to our self-chosen destination: track six, "We're Going to Hell."

It's not as though there aren't a multitude of reasons for an eventual residence in the fiery afterlife, but, if the album's lyrics offer us any clues, the primary culprit is our big old brains. "I hate this damn enlightenment/ we were better off as animals, right?"—that's the question posed in "From the Hips," a self-righteous decree that reminds us we're "at our best when we're at our worst" and when our answers come "from the hips" instead of from our brains. Equally echo-laden (and a tad catchier than the aforementioned tune) is "Caveman," a swinging number that includes a glorious use of a horn section and such lyrical gems as, "I want down from this family tree/ I don't need no upward mobility."

Musically, Cursive have always managed to make depression and anxiety sound like rock and should sound when given the right fistful of attitude. Angst and melody abide in plenty of forms on Mama, from the swelling, horn-infused sorta love song "I Couldn't Love You" to the vaguely World-beat inflected title track. And Cursive also remind us that just because you're smarter than the average rock band doesn't mean you can't put them to shame with punk-rock rhythm—look to album opener "In the Now" for that formula.

Surprisingly (or maybe not so) Mama addresses the need and the inherent drive to grow up, become a man, and put away childish things. "Donkeys" takes this on fully with it's lyrics about a protagonist with a "jackass grin" who refuses to leave "Pleasure Island" and shoulder the responsibilities that come with a mortgage and a child. As a song, it's one of the album's finer moments; quiet, subdued, yet piercing in its critique and melody. As a marker, it may be a sign that denotes a moment of stagnation with the band. Cursive have made their living thus far critiquing the worlds inside and around them and come up with the same zero-sum every time. So, at what point is it no longer feasible to exist in a world you deem to be made of shit? When it comes to that question, Cursive may have come to the end of their rope and found the noose. Thankfully, though, they cranked out one more pretty-good to great album before their tanks ran dry.
Mama, I'm Swollen

Mama, I'm Swollen

LP / CD / MP3