Cursive - Mama, I'm Swollen (Cover Artwork)
Staff Pick


Mama, I'm Swollen (2009)

Saddle Creek

For ten years, Cursive has been faced with the impossible task of simultaneously pleasing two distinct but similarly stubborn and equally elitist subsets of music fandom. Hipsters want Cursive to be their favorite indie rock band and punks want Cursive to be their favorite post-hardcore band. A brief glance at the revision history of the band's Wikipedia entry showcases the futile struggle for genre primacy and, incidentally, the absurdity of it all. But with Mama, I'm Swollen, Cursive rises to the challenge and delivers a graceful tightrope rock of equal parts mellow indie and punk angst.

Following on the heels of the genre-bending, circus-folk of 2006's Happy Hollow, Mama, I'm Swollen is both a return to form and refinement of an ostensibly Cursive sound if ever one was able to be pinned down. The manifestly conceptual Happy Hollow has given way to a more free-form flow of storytelling, blurring the lines between the narrative and the annotations, merging the minutia and momentous. Less judgmental and more observant than what precedes it, Mama, I'm Swollen is a collection of blurry snapshots, held under the magnifying glass to reveal the detail in all that is there.

Foreshadowing the flirtations with atmospheric post-rock that follow, "In the Now" explodes from a controlled buildup of feedback into a shockingly simplistic set of three couplets and driven by a steady trot of rollicking punk vigor. The immediate downturn "From the Hips" provides a momentary breather before bursting in similar fashion, though pushing just a shade of commentary: "From our hips we don't give a shit /… / It's the only way to feel alive / The closest thing to being born again." "I Couldn't Love You" feels almost like a throwback to the still-developing post-hardcore Cursive, save for the oscillating flute melody in the foreground that wobbles in and out like Embrace playing "Strawberry Fields Forever."

The curious inclusion of "Caveman" offers the only substantial evidence of detractors in an otherwise sterling assembly. The rough-and-tumble alt-country romp seems more like a displaced Happy Hollow outtake than a fitting piece of the album's storyboard. Conciliated by the lively but dense "Mama, I'm Satan," the final five songs of the record stretch nearly 25 minutes, book-ended by the six-minute voyage "What Have I Done?" The lush, ambient soundscape glows intensely as vocalist Tim Kasher muses about his perceived shortcomings, virtually cross-referencing Happy Hollow's "Rise Up! Rise Up!" with "" spent the best years of my life / Waiting on the best years of my life."

Enveloped in a muddle of simplistic complexity, Mama, I'm Swollen seems like Cursive's most archetypal offering. It grows, it matures, it falters, it ends with less certainty than it began. But most importantly, it delivers.