Mama, I'm Swollen
Saddle Creek, 2009
REVIEW BY: Melanie Love
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/16/2009
Following up 2006’s explorative (both musically and lyrically) Happy Hollow, Mama I’m Swollen comes as a bit of a backpedal for the Nebraskan quartet. It’s a slice out of the emo songbook, all misery and melodrama but less of the sheer catchiness that makes your average Fall Out Boy rip-off so shamefully entertaining. Especially since these guys (Tim Kasher, Matt Maginn, Ted Stevens, and Cornbread Compton) are upwards of 30, which seems about time to step back from opening veins all over the pages of their own diaries. Indeed, Happy Hollow took up themes from religious hypocrisy to vapid suburbia, which makes this foray back into self-reflection and vague musings on humanity and hell all the more lackluster.
Still, there is some good stuff here, even if it’s not particularly substantial. Opener “In The Now” has a bit of Von Bondies flavor, combining stuttering guitars with a propulsive, fist-pumping chorus and Kasher’s increasingly unhinged vocals as he repeats, “Don’t want to live in the now / Don’t want to know what I know.” In the span of under three minutes, the song keeps alternately uncoiling and imploding, establishing Cursive’s much-appreciated penchant of playing with time and space, even as the lyrics repeat themselves into numbness. “From The Hips” fumbles this beginning burst of energy ‘til about halfway in as the drums begin to pound and the riffs climax, echoing Kasher’s self-loathing but pro-love sentiments (“I hate this damn enlightenment / We were better when we were animals”).
From a fairly cliché love anthem only made interesting by the throbbing, thriving instrumentation (“I Couldn’t Love You Anymore”), Mama, I’m Swollen finally gets a little interesting. “Donkeys,” with its wry, occasionally yowling vocals, ominous strains of guitars, and touches of brass, is a scathing indictment of a society fixated on pleasure and hoarding, while “Caveman” continues in a similar vein, this time mixing in punchy guitars and bouncing brass sections but keeping to a theme of only getting worse as we evolve (“Because I'm tired of standing upright / The taller we become the more dollars we can grab from that highest branch”).
Musically Cursive stretch less here than they did on earlier discs, which is especially unfortunate considering they stay parsing the same subject matter lyrically, and mixing up the song structures a bit more could make hearing “We’re going to hell!” for the sixteenth time more palatable (possibly). “Let Me Up,” which blends in flutes and some fuzzed-over riffs into its energetic key-shifts, makes a nice reprieve, but it’s closer “What Have I Done?” that swerves most welcomingly off pace with its swelling electronic atmospherics; it tells the story of a dejected would-be novelist “scratching lyrics on paper plates” as Kasher repeatedly yowls, “What have I done?”, growing increasingly hysterical as the album veers towards its finish.
Mama, I’m Swollen is mostly a case of missed expectations than real unfulfillment. There are some excellent moments, but not enough to prove the ambition Cursive has shown themselves to possess.