The 3 years between 2003’s The Ugly Organ and Happy Hollow were a time of doubt for Cursive fans. After wrapping up a tour in support of The Ugly Organ, the band began a much-needed hiatus. Lead vocalist and songwriter Tim Kasher’s folk-rock side project the Good Life became his top priority, and his love for the group led to open contemplation of a Cursive break-up.
The initial worries only increased when the Good Life released its widely acclaimed Album of the Year (it was) in 2004, and Kasher told an interviewer that he had no immediate plans to continue on with Cursive. Shortly thereafter, internal changes in the band led to a split with cellist Greta Cohn, leaving fans doubtful about the band’s future. Even if it were to reform, many thought, Cursive surely would not be able to return to the form displayed on previous albums.
The band, however, has returned with Happy Hollow and, surprisingly, not much has changed. In fact, the only major difference in its sound is the addition of a horn section. This was a welcome change, as horns were used with great success on “A Gentleman Caller,” The Ugly Organ’s most exciting tune. Here, they are used effectively and consistently on almost every track, setting Cursive apart from the plethora of recent indie bands with under-worked horn players (see: Margot and the Nuclear So and Sos).
Conceptually, the album is Cursive’s most accomplished to date. The songs follow a storyline filled with Christian themes and tales of shattered American dreams, set in the fictional town of Happy Hollow. Kasher’s alienation with Christianity is established in the opening tracks and built upon quite seamlessly throughout the album. “Big Bang,” for instance, sees him mocking those who deny scientific proof in favor of unsubstantiated theories like intelligent design. Raucous lyrics and arguably the best horn work on the entire album combine to create one of many electrifying songs on Happy Hollow.
Other high points include “Bad Sects,” a criticism of the Christian rejection of homosexuality, “Dorothy Dreams of Tornadoes,” and “Bad Science.” The closing track, “Hymns for the Heathen,” is among the album’s best as well, which is shocking as it literally lists off the themes of the 13 songs before it (“First hymn, the son of god complex / Second hymn, the prodigal damsel / Third hymn, the tree stump of knowledge...”).
The true thematic summary of the album, however, comes in the penultimate anthem, “Rise Up! Rise Up!.” The song, yet another scathing attack on the Christian religion, shows off some of the most heartfelt lyrics Kasher has ever written: “I wasted half of my life on the thought that I’d live forever…So rise up! Rise up! Live a full life! ‘Cause when it’s over it’s done” he screams, echoing the thoughts of many members of the growing anti-Christian movement in American indie/punk music.
Despite the inclusion of several of the best songs in Cursive’s extensive catalogue, the true selling point of this album is that it contains nearly no filler. In fact, the most lethargic and uninspired song on the album is probably its first single: “Dorothy at Forty,” which is by no means bad. The record, from start to finish, never strays from its concept and keeps its listeners continually captivated. Apparently those three years off were a good thing, because Happy Hollow is Cursive’s most complete work to date and arguably its best. At this point, it has to be pretty high in the running for album of the year.