Reviews

Mama, I'm Swollen

Author: Brian LaRue
07/28/2009 | Hartford Advocate | www.hartfordadvocate.com | Live Show Preview
On paper, there's a lot that might make Cursive seem like ... well, a bit much. While many bands make a concept album or themed record at some point, Cursive has made five.

In one case, they followed up an epic romance-breakup album, Cursive's Domestica, with an album that followed the arc of a musician with a reputation for writing tortured breakup songs, The Ugly Organ. Early albums came stuffed with complex song-suites. Their lyric sheets have pointed out certain songs or parts of songs that are meant to be understood as coming from the point of view of specific characters; The Ugly Organ's liner notes even include stage directions. Recent albums have added horn arrangements to their already dense, guitar-heavy sound. And singer/guitarist Tim Kasher's lyrics tend toward the big-issue and the high-stakes: failed marriage, existential dread, the ways social mores and religious devotion stifle humans' baser impulses.

In less able hands, Cursive's formula could easily fall on its own face into a puddle of pretentiousness. But Cursive not only pulls it off, pinning down emotions where lesser bands merely point to them, they do it well enough that many of their fans continue to stick around well after their own youthful "punk periods." While, over the course of nearly 15 years, the band's songs have always been frequently angsty and have never strayed unrecognizably far from their post-hardcore and art-punk roots, they're also clearly songs written and played by grown-ups.

In a recent phone conversation, Kasher explains how for him, he's avoided overindulgence by working carefully on his craft. "Writing is pretty much what I'm in it for," he says. "You want to be bright enough to know when a song should be really simple. Conversely, you want to recognize when there's more you can do with a song. It's difficult for me to let songs be, not to chop them up. 'The Recluse' [from The Ugly Organ] was a difficult song for me to write because there's so little to it."

Kasher explains his subject matter comes from "wanting to be literate lyrically, wanting to tackle difficult subject matter what I'd consider difficult," but that he hasn't set out to make every Cursive album since 1997 a concept album. While 2006's Happy Hollow, a set of songs sung from the point of view of a handful of small-town dwellers, was meant to have a thematic arc from the beginning, 2000's Domestica, widely interpreted as a chronicle of Kasher's then-recent divorce, was "kind of shaped halfway through."

The band's latest album, Mama, I'm Swollen, takes a theme that pops up on Happy Hollow religion's inability to wholly repress human sexuality and runs with it, pointing out that man is still an animal at his core. Lyrically, he calls it (perhaps surprisingly for someone who's tended toward adult subject matter) "a refusal of maturity."

Kasher is now in his 30s, and maturity's on his mind. Mama, I'm Swollen's closing track, "What Have I Done?" comes from the perspective of a touring musician who realizes he's been observing other people's lives unfold without really getting on with his own life. "That's definitely the song that unwittingly depresses the hell out of a bunch of 20-to-30-year-olds," he says.

But, on his own part, he's been working on a life outside rock he moved to Los Angeles from his longtime home base of Omaha a few years ago and has been writing screenplays. "It's helped me mentally free up a lot of ideas," he says. "Now I'm trying to figure out the way to balance" those musical and cinematic outlets. He's balancing well, if Mama, I'm Swollen is any indication therein, Cursive as always sounds fully committed and entirely believable.

Mama, I'm Swollen

Mama, I'm Swollen

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