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Cursive: Mama, I’m Swollen (Album Review)

After the stellar Happy Hollow album, Tim Kasher and bassist Matt Maginn took a big step back to question whether they wanted to move in the same direction under the Cursive name. A few cards were stacked against them. Cursive’s drummer Clint Schnase, the main man responsible for much of the group’s appeal — their mathy time changes — was out of the picture. The rest of the band lived in different cities. Also, Kasher had just finished his fifth solo album under the moniker the Good Life and was becoming increasingly comfortable making softer rock. After some debate, he and the remaining founding members (Maginn, and guitarist Tim Stevens) decided to move forward anyway, throw down some tracks, and worry about whether it fit the mold of “the Cursive sound” later.

Decidedly toned down, Cursive’s sixth album, Mama, I’m Swollen, marks a radical departure for the group. In fact, it doesn’t really fit the mold of “the Cursive sound” at all. Songs share more in common with the Good Life’s Help Wanted Nights than anything in Cursive’s catalog. Instead of fractured fairy tales, there are straightforward singer/songwriter jingles, likely penned by Kasher on acoustic guitar before getting fleshed out with other instruments. The lack of writing involvement by other bandmembers shows. While ambitious in scope, excessive polish only emphasizes the point that they are now a recording band instead of a live band. Where experimentation with layered instruments enhanced the grandness of Happy Hollow, here it’s taken one step overboard with additional flute, clarinets, and violin arrangements added on top of the supplementary horn section, to the point of making this their lightest, earthiest release to date. Of course, fans of early Cursive aren’t necessarily looking for light and earthy or simple 4/4 beats.

Kasher remains a cunning wordsmith, and as usual, his lyrics are filled with uncertainty — especially when debating religion, as he’s done on more than a few songs now. However, when the music is more uncertain of itself than the lyrics are, things become shaky. The album jumps around without focus from country rock, indie, and Americana, with tinges of hard-hitting emo rock here and there peeking out from behind the slick pop ballads. Fortunately, there are redeeming moments. Kasher’s deep running concepts are still entertaining, and even though the songs are in a tamer style, they’re pretty good. “Let Me Up” maintains some of the guts and angular chops of early releases, “In the Now” has the garage rock edginess of Superchunk, and “I Couldn’t Love You Any More” succeeds as a catchy indie pop number. It’s not a horrible release, it just doesn’t measure up to Happy Hollow, The Ugly Organ, or Domestica.