Ignorance is bliss. While this may be a drastic distillation, it is the overarching theme running throughout Cursive’s latest full-length, Mama, I’m Swollen. While the album -- the band's sixth -- is not as vitriolic or confrontational as Happy Hollow (despite having tracks titled “Mama, I’m Satan” and “We’re Going to Hell”), Mama still finds lead singer and songwriter Tim Kasher grappling with many issues he’s explored throughout his career. However, just as he seems more restrained and content than he has in the past, the band backing him is tighter and less abrasive than before.
Lyrically, Kasher continues his fixation on myths and folktales (Organ’s “Driftwood, a Fairytale,” Hollow’s “Dorothy at Forty”), but also manages to widen his scope beyond North American religious hypocrisy, the prominent theme of Happy Hollow. The ethics of right and wrong, individual conscience, guilt, and responsibility are among the biggest issues addressed here. Opener “In the Now” makes this quite clear with its insistently repeated refrain of “Don’t wanna live in the now, don’t wanna know what I know,” a theme that's extended on lead single “From the Hips,” a frustrated lament of the knowledge of morality (“I hate this damn enlightenment – we were better off as animals, right?”). Kasher is obviously conflicted -- he knows he’s more than an animal, but he longs to experience life without conscience (“Don’t tell me we’re just animals,” he demands on “We’re Going to Hell”).
Because he emphasizes large-scale concerns, Kasher focuses less on the intensely personal, detail-laden lyrics for which he's known, yet he doesn't entirely abandon them. “What Have I Done?” the album’s cathartic closer, finds a broken man in a dingy hotel room ruminating on a lack of accomplishment and squandered time (“Gonna write my Moby Dick/ More like scratchin’ lyrics on paper plates”). Meanwhile, "Mama, I'm Satan" sees Kasher singing "Every record I've written/ Has left me smitten," displaying his continual desire for self-examination.
While the absence of Gretta Cohn’s expressive cello (last heard on The Ugly Organ) is noticeable, the band sounds bigger and more expansive than in the past: organs whine, plaintive clarinet lines are featured prominently (and to great effect) in two tracks, and slide guitar weeps on “Caveman.” Indeed, Mama finds Cursive at their most musically refined. But while this sort of depth bodes well for the band, it's hard not to miss the jagged, urgent quality of their earlier work; they’re almost becoming too tame with age. Sure, lines are delivered in Kasher’s feral scream, but they’re buried so deep in the mix and filtered through so much distortion that its immediacy is obscured. Kasher manges to sound simultaneously restless and resigned, and the band seems to bear similar sentiments as well; in fact, the only songs that really feel impassioned are the final four tracks.
Although Mama, I’m Swollen is still an interesting addition to Cursive's discography, the album is neither a “return to form” nor a particularly outstanding record. It's definitely an improvement over Happy Hollow, but the band has yet to reclaim the impulse that attracted so many of their fans in the first place.
1. In The Now
2. From The Hips
3. I Couldn’t Love You
6. We’re Going To Hell
7. Mama, I’m Satan
8. Let Me Up
9. Mama, I’m Swollen
10. What Have I Done?