Though the emo scene that first lovingly embraced the band will forever hail “The Ugly Organ” (2003) as its masterpiece, Cursive actually set a much higher mark to match with “Happy Hollow,” the 2006 concept album that found the Omaha group examining the complexities of religion from the perspectives of different small-town residents via a musical backdrop that recalled the most baroque but buoyant moments by XTC. At first blush, the band’s sixth album appears less ambitious both musically and lyrically: Overall, it’s a quieter, less dense or dynamic recording, and lyricist Tim Kasher is looking inward again instead of making grand sociological statements.
“I’m at my best when I’m at my worst,” Kasher sings early on in “From the Hips,” while at the end of the disc, in “What Have I Done?,” he adds, “I spent the best years of my life waiting on the best years of my life.” The key to appreciating “Mama, I’m Swollen” is the realization that Kasher was heavily inspired by the novel Rabbit, Run: In many ways, these 10 songs update John Updike for a new generation, examining what should be contented, comfortable suburban lives that actually are anything but, with the characters in these songs either running away from their problems, boredom or both, or seeking salvation through misguided affairs.
The music also creeps up on you, with the most dramatic and experimental tracks coming late in the disc, but with subtle yet winning melodies bubbling under throughout. Kasher may be trying to carve out a new career as a Hollywood screenwriter, and his work with his side band the Good Life may be equally important to him at this point. But as these 10 songs prove, Cursive remains a vital force in modern rock.