It took 83 full days, and multiple Radiohead and Chariot albums, but finally some Cursive. And what an interesting one to start with, yeah?
Judging only its MetaCritic score, one might think Mama, I’m Swollen is the weakest Cursive release. Au contraire, mon frère. Released three years after Happy Hollow – an album downright creepy in an altogether different way – Mama is this Omaha, Nebraska-based outfit’s bleakest album yet.
As I’ve written previously, the work of Cursive frontman Tim Kasher is one I’ve followed for more than a decade. That’s surprising even to me, in the sense that it’s watching an artist – but more importantly, another human being – evolve in front of your eyes. If you think about it, it’s quite strange. I don’t know him on a personal level but I’ve read the last… 14 or so years of his writing.
TK is prolific, unleashing a slew of Cursive, Good Life and solo albums on an unwitting public (well, maybe some were witting). Each release has been centered around a veritable grocer’s list of themes and topics: from religious hypocrisy and church sex scandals, to the torment of divorce and the struggles of being a “professional” artist in a touring act.
When the album was released in ’09, Saddle Creek Records priced it at $1 on its first day. In the days that followed, the album went up by $1 each day. A $1 Cursive album was too much to pass up, especially for a brand new release. I was not at all expecting what that dollar entailed, both from the music and the attached art.
Along with the physical copies, the digital version came with a 13-page lyric booklet. Normal lyric booklets might fit in with the theme of the album’s artwork or whatnot.
But the inclusion of Kasher’s own handwritten lyrics make him out to be a raving lunatic. When you take a step back though, it makes total sense for an album like this. There’s a lot of angst on Mama, no doubt. If there was any question as to his mental state or mood during the writing process of the album, those are dispelled once one takes a look at Kasher’s scrawls and chicken scratch on napkins and paper plates.
This image, the lyrics of “Caveman,” boasts a coffee stain and a doodle.
This one, from the title track “Mama, I’m Swollen,” depicts an increase in the size of words and agitation, followed by a deliberate choice to be small again. Some words are drop shadowed with blood red.
The last of these comes from “What Have I Done?” In true ‘meta’ fashion, Kasher even references “scratching lyrics on paper plates” within the song.
Now granted, these could all be “enhanced” or planned out by the band or TK himself – or they could be totally legit. I’m of the mindset that these are legit, and not just because it’s Cursive. Any piece of paper can become a canvas: envelopes, receipts, cocktail napkins, busted March Madness brackets. It’s a neat idea to include with the record, and a good illustration if it’s legitimate.
Yeah, it’s dark. Yeah, it might be a tad on the dramatic sad – even a bit immature. We are all human beings looking for our own way, and having to work through our own problems. Some, like Kasher, do it in the limelight, on stage every night.
I just don’t get the critical dismay for this record.
It bucks the Cursive “concept” trend of the previous three albums (Domestica: divorce, The Ugly Organ: art is hard, Happy Hollow: religion is a farce).
It still has some clever wordplay. On “Donkeys,” Kasher writes:
The reverend says beware
He swears we’re goin to hell’
We may be donkeys
But at least we have a tale to tell
And it still drives a mean single: “From the Hips” is biting and caustic, a man trying to work through his problems with the opposite sex by doing the opposite of what is healthy.
Cursive is an ever-changing band. What was it about Mama, I’m Swollen that didn’t sit well with people? Whatever it was, I don’t hear it.
The only grower here for me was “Let Me Up.” Have a listen and you tell me –
Standout tracks: “From the Hips”; “Mama, I’m Satan”; “What Have I Done?”
Weakest track: For a while, I thought “Let Me Up” was a snoozer. But after the official video was released, I gained a whole new appreciation for it.
RIYL: Aggressive indie rock. Commander Venus, Criteria, Two Gallants.