The Cursive: Stuck in The Middle and Left with Mediocrity
| Monday, August 31, 2009
“Don’t want to live in the now / Don’t want to know what I know” are the lines that kick off the latest full-length effort by Omaha’s finest indie band, Cursive. Appropriate words coming from the mouth of Tim Kasher, who has spent the latter part of this decade trying to follow up the critical acclaim he received in the first half.
2000’s “Domestica” and 2003’s “The Ugly Organ” made year-end best-of lists everywhere, and are widely regarded as two of the best albums ever to be marginally associated with that ugliest of words: “emo.” Lyrically, they were about little more than Kasher’s life as the singer of Cursive and his failing relationships. However, the way he articulated his self-doubt and self-loathing was noteworthy, and he was rightfully placed among his generation’s finest lyricists.
Cursive’s 2006 album, “Happy Hollow,” added a horn section to their previously staunchly indie sound, and Kasher turned his lyrical focus to small town environments and Christianity. This was a mistake, as the album was inconsistent at best. So where would they go from there? Back to basics or continuing off into the great unknown?
The answer is both and neither – sort of. Lyrically, 2009’s “Mama, I’m Swollen” is generally along traditional Cursive lines. However, the instruments sound like a subdued version of “Happy Hollow” – or to be more accurate, like a marginally angrier version of Kasher’s folk side project the Good Life. The result is an album that sounds indecisive, like the group is treading water.
In fact, repetition is a huge part of most songs on the album. The aforementioned first track, “In the Now,” has no more than half a dozen different lines to the song, which are repeated ad nauseum through its two and a half minute runtime. For a supposedly great, prolific lyricist, that’s pretty suspect songwriting. The chorus to “I Couldn’t Love You” is just “I couldn’t love you anymore” repeated four times. It’s difficult not to be disappointed when past efforts have made it clear that Kasher is capable of so much more than this.
When there are lyrics of substance to analyze, it becomes clear Kasher’s main concern is reconciling adulthood with being in a band – the ultimate Peter Pan lifestyle. Then of course, self-awareness raises its ugly head on tracks like “Mama, I’m Satan” where Kasher confesses “I’m writing out a confession / Every record I’ve written has left me smitten.” This is the good stuff, what people listen to Cursive for.
The jackpot is the final track “What Have I Done?” where in six minutes, Kasher breaks down his entire career as a songwriter, wondering if he has accomplished anything of substance. It’s almost painful to listen to lines like “I spent the best years of my life / Waiting on the best years of my life / So what’s there to write about?” It towers above any of the other songs on “Mama, I’m Swollen,” and is among the finest Cursive has ever recorded.
Musically, much of the album splits the difference between “Happy Hollow” and The Good Life. The lyrics – that is, when there are lyrics – are vintage Kasher. However, the biggest flaw of “Mama, I’m Swollen” is that it feels so safe. Songs like “From the Hips” are good, but there’s a nagging feeling that the album could have been so much more.
So while the songs range from mind-blowing to forgettable, the album as a whole evens out to be a rather mediocre set. Maybe from another band this album would have been a pleasant surprise, but Cursive gets graded on a steep curve. They can do far better than this, so why are they resting on their laurels?