Mama, I’m Swollen
Saddle Creek

3 out of 5 stars

“Don’t want to live in the now / don’t want to know what I know,” announces a wailing Tim Kasher on “In the Now,” the opening track of Mama, I’m Swollen, Cursive’s seventh full-length studio album. Disconcerted by a dysfunctional society and those who inhabit it, the enigmatic lead singer makes a claim that ignorance would, in fact, bring him bliss. But the opinionated Kasher can’t remain oblivious for too long; on the remainder of the album, he confronts his aforementioned grievance head-on with no sympathy for his fellow man.

Throughout its 13-year existence, Cursive has been a concept band of sorts, loosely basing each of its past three releases around a debatable topic not easily pinned down in four-minute rock songs. 2000’s Domestica tackled the subject of divorce. 2003’s The Ugly Organ commented on regretting past decisions (namely those of the sexual variety) and 2007’s Happy Hollow attacked established religion and its role in small-town America.

On Swollen, Kasher finds himself looking at the world through a much broader scope. He takes on the human condition and its innumerable faults and shortcomings. “The ego of mankind stirs in us all,” a line from “Mama, I’m Satan,” sums up this sentiment, expressing the self-centered nature that drives humans to their selfish ends.

“From the Hips,” the album’s lead single and strongest track, is vintage Cursive. Penetrating lyrics (“I hate this damn Enlightenment / We were better off as animals”) and a pensive buildup of subtle guitar strums and weighty tom hits crescendo into a discordant, frenzied middle section of the song. The cacophony then climaxes into a primal scream. The song cheekily argues that intelligence is a curse that hinders human nature’s tendency toward carnal pleasure.

In “We’re Going to Hell,” an initially barren soundscape is substituted for a feeble string section and high-pitched piano plinks to create a sinister and ominous feel. The song might be expressing the consequence of creating a sacrilegious album like Happy Hollow. If this eternity thing is indeed true, Cursive could be in deep trouble.

“What Have I Done?” matches an ambient organ tone and sober guitar with a remorseful Kasher looking into his past in bitter regret as he sings, “I spent the best years of my life / waiting on the best years of my life.” This emotionally charged closer is a tearjerker for any longtime Cursive fan. It marks a moment where Kasher realizes his relentless and unyielding opinions on the world are insignificant and that, in the grand scheme of things, his music is meaningless. It’s a rare moment of vulnerability from a hardheaded front man, and the song even gives an unexpected shout-out to Ann Arbor to boot.

Ultimately, Swollen falls short of the lyrical potency and masterful musicianship present on Cursive’s previous two albums. As each song progresses, Kasher sounds more frustrated and less convincing. The album’s focus on the wretched nature of mankind makes for the darkest subject matter that Kasher has ever explored.

Mama, I’m Swollen might be tough to listen to with its depressing musical and lyrical nature. But in a world overflowing with electronic-based music containing lyrics ranging from the impersonal to the meaningless, a cathartic rock‘n’roll record with complex song structures and contemplative ideas is a nice change.

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