Cursive, Omaha’s little band that could, did. The band refined their sound and vision after an unremarkable late-‘90s inception to become one of the most respected acts in independent music. By blending Midwest emo—as originally defined by Braid, Promise Ring, Boy’s Life, and others—with unique musical turns like ungainly chord progressions and horn-and-cello arrangements, Cursive created a distinct sound. Vocalist/head honcho Tim Kasher proved himself a superb lyricist with an appropriately gruff voice—the perfect complement to his band’s rough-hewn music. With a trio of career-defining records (2000’s Domestica, 2003’s The Ugly Organ, and 2006’s Happy Hollow), Cursive stubbornly followed their muse with no regard for commercial or critical gain, and in doing so birthed a bastard sound they could righteously call their own.
Mama, I’m Swollen is Cursive’s most straightforward record in nearly a decade. Though retaining the brass section and ancillary instrumentation found on their previous two albums, the band adopts more standard song structures here. Ugly Organ and Happy Hollow had their share of odd songs that sounded as if the band was trying too hard to be different. On their newest, Cursive plays it a little safer. There’s sill room for variety, from full-out rockers to bluesy shuffles, but the streamlined approach pays off with the band’s most consistent album.
With a steady, muscular rhythm draped in discordant guitars, and Kasher howling like Ian MacKaye (“Don’t want to live in the now, don’t want to know to what I know!”), album opener “In the Now” sounds like a lost track from Fugazi’s Repeater. The band then pulls an about-face with the relatively somber though simmering “From the Hips,” which builds toward a climactic end that’s strengthened by a rousing saxophone melody, while the dour “What Have I Done?” recalls the Replacements’s sadder moments, the self-deprecating lyrics capturing Paul Westerberg’s similar alcohol-soaked grim worldview: “I was out there in the world, but the world was passing me by.” Rare is it that a singer can put these sentiments to music and paint such vivid portraits evoking feelings of utter defeat and total despair (think Springsteen and Waits). Always a devotee of the concept album, Kasher depicts a middle-aged man steeped in failure and facing a hell teeming with personal demons. He declares, “I’m at my worst when at my best/Trying to look and think and talk and sing and read and write like all the rest.”
Though one can only ponder whether lyrics such as “I spent the best years of my life waiting on the best years of my life” (from “What Have I Done?”) are autobiographical, they resonate profoundly when propelled by music of such intensity, for which credit must go to new drummer Cornbread Compton and bassist Matt Maginn. Both lend a fire and sturdiness seldom heard in the band’s music. Diehard fans will continue to bray for The Ugly Organ 2, but Swollen features better songs, stronger playing, and Dylan-level lyrics, making it the band’s most cohesive work to date.