- Alternative Rock
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Reviewed by Taylor Long
Though not a narrative in strict terms, like their breakout album, Domestica, a close look at Mama, I’m Swollen, is full of details that tell the story of a man’s downfall and reclamation.
Opener "In the Now," one of the album’s heaviest-hitting tracks, recalling the middle of Cursive’s career; frontman Tim Kasher narrates a denial of the present condition, a brewing dissatisfaction, saying "Don’t want to live in the now, don’t want to know what I know." "From the Hips" demonstrates a frustration with interpersonal relations, arguing that our base instincts are the truest. Echoing this frustration, the song begins tame but finishes bombastically, with horns carrying the tune while the rest of the band pounds away as Kasher screams, "I wish that we had never talked / Our hips said it all." A similar attitude is found on album standout "I Couldn’t Love You," examining the complications and complexity of love. Kasher embodies this in even one line of wordplay. The refrain of "I couldn’t love you anymore" becomes something else entirely with the clever placement of a pause – "I couldn’t love you any more."
The frustration, confusion and complexity gets overwhelming in "Donkeys," where a woman reminds a man of his responsibility while he simply longs to escape. The track continues the fairy-tale theme of "Peter Pan Syndrome" as a referral to "Pinocchio," where the characters turn into donkeys on a visit to Pleasure Island. "This just might be my greatest mistake," the man considers, but ultimately risks it all in hopes of something more exciting, "We may be donkeys / But at least we have a tale to tell." This desire to reject society’s norms or to shirk responsibility is showcased on "Caveman," "I’m no husband, ain’t no Dad / I’m a goddamn caveman / This upward mobility is more than I can understand."
But guilt – another classic subject for Cursive – overwhelms the narration on "We’re Going to Hell," which takes a break from examining the faults of man to recall the faults of religion, as they did on Happy Hollow, their last album. "I’ve been disciplined by religion, by fear / So I can’t quite seem to keep my thoughts pure / I’ve a hunger for the deviant / And a thirst for worse."
Regret fills "Mama, I’m Satan," along with the kind of self-criticism that drove another fan favorite album, The Ugly Organ, "Every record I’ve written has left me smitten / A career in masturbation." "Let Me Up" is a plea directed at the ubiquitous "Mama," a role that exists perhaps to refer to a desire to return to the womb. Referencing a sort of rebirth, "Mama, I’m Swollen" plays as a warning that everyone has the capability to self-destruct, "I am the cancer born and growing in each and everyone."
Album closer "What Have I Done?" begs that very question from the point of view of a man longing to write his memoirs, but too dissatisfied to make progress: "You’re young and you’re going to be someone / Then you’re old and you’re ashamed of what you’ve become" is the great irony that could haunt the man who left his wife looking for "a tale to tell," in "Donkeys." It seems almost too inevitable that this disappointment could easily come around to the rejection of the present in "In the Now," setting forth a cycle foreshadowed by the verse, "History repeats / Because present won’t repent."
This is all told over subtler and more pop-oriented songwriting than Cursive has been known for in the past. This isn’t to say that the album is a total break from form, though. Kasher’s powerful as ever voice combines with new drummer Cornbread Compton’s shifting time signatures to retain much of the band’s trademark sound.
Though Cursive have forsaken total aggression for a more dynamic emotional and stylistic approach, which will more than likely upset some fans, Mama, I’m Swollen, is as much an artistic statement as a social one – that growth and change leave room for disappointment, but so does the refusal to adapt.