Twenty-four years into their art-rock anthology, Cursive continues to lyrically demonstrate their socio-cultural angularity and irreverent staying power. Dystopian times, no Promise Land, failed relationships, civil accountability, bubbles of truth, and obsession of money are all in the sights of the wind-up merchant and frontman Tim Kasher. By blending their inaugural dissonance from Domestica, recalling their iconic element of Ugly Organ-era cello (now by Megan Siebe), and waxing their career-long apostatical poetics, Vitriola is a sonic affirmation that vibrational vitriol isn’t just a college-callow sport for youngsters to play. With founding members Ted Stevens (guitar, vocals) and Matt Maginn (bass), plus touring member Patrick Newberry (keys), the Omaha outfit’s latest opus Vitriola stamps their eighth studio album to date, their first full-length in six years, and a satiating reunion, since Happy Hollow, with producer/mogul Mike Mogis and founding drummer Clint Schnase. Vitriola also marks their momentous departure from Saddle Creek after twenty years now having established their own label called 15 Passenger, which also rosters Seattle’s David Bazan and Sean Lane, Chicago’s Campdogzz, and – of course – Tim Kasher’s eponymous solo project.
On the opening track “Free To Be Or Not To Be You And Me,” Vitriola commences with startlingly Big Bang, staccato sharpness – the Big Bang being a motif that Kasher often flirts (e.g. “Big Bang” from their 2006 Happy Hollow). The chords quickly move into decaying notes one after another until they reach their purpose for the first verse. “So I dug deep down / deep inside myself” swiftly elicits Tim Kasher’s signature self-aware and introspective modus operandi, which soon results in “Just another human organism / obsessed with -isms.” There’s an ominous heartbeat throughout the song – and the whole album really – that de-escalates into the second track “Pick Up The Pieces,” which showcases a prominent cello presence and classic Cursive heavy-hitting progressions with guitar and cello taking turns on the riff accents.
“It’s Gonna Hurt” and “Under The Rainbow” respectively act as the third and second singles of the 44-minute chronicling of the doomsday clock. If there’s one distinction of a Cursive song or record it’s the witty wordplay and half-yelping-half-yearning catharsis of Tim Kasher spewing emotive allegories and Biblical blasphemies into the void as we have on these tracks. We get a slight reprieve from all the catchy riffs and chaos with the more atmospheric “Remorse” awash with ballad-like piano twinkling. However, the pretty and happy parts can only last a couple minutes in Kasherland until the piano literally sounds like it’s being smashed and all that is innocent collapses and we’re back to a harsher reality in “Ouroboros” – the clearest example on Vitriola of the hybridized continuum of Cursive’s evolved sound with allusions to Burst and Bloom-echoing distortion and tone. And you really can’t get any more Kasher-ian than the stanza from this song, “We were blessed with an enlightened intellect / Enlightened intellect made the internet / The internet gave the world a mouthpiece / That swallowed our enlightened intellect / The voice of man has been exposed / As vitriol — don’t gotta read between the HTML.”
If Shakespeare were alive today Tim Kasher would easily be one of his tragic characters. “Everending” houses the epitome of Kasher’s pathos. With “Trying to make this life seem less absurd / Trying to make a mountain out of words” expounds Kasher’s heart-on-his-sleeve flaws with his triumph and downfall being his heroic self-criticism of “Can you imagine such hubris got me this far?” in the poppiest song in the mix, “Ghost Writer.” Then we’re back to discordant guitar behaviors starting off “Life Savings” – the first single off Vitriola – but we’re lead into a more straightforward songwriting and beautifully bleak guest vocals by Jessica Price of Campdogzz. Clocking in at 7:27, “Noble Soldier / Dystopian Lament” appreciatively summons Cursive’s habit of long-form codas like “What Have I Done?” off Mama, I’m Swollen and “Staying Alive” off The Ugly Organ, their pièce de résistance. There’s a thrash-then-back-to-normal thread all the way until this album ender, which displays a calligraphic shape and dynamic flow throughout the record. The sfumato segue between the two-parter comes in around 2:20 with an orchestral crescendo lining the walls of Kasher’s angsty animadversion until the fluttering fuzz of guitars and drums transcend into a dark-drone, cathedral-like om.
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