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Cursive - Vitriola Music Album Reviews

Working with a cellist and producer Mike Mogis for the first time in more than a decade, Tim Kasher’s angriest but most vulnerable band squares up against the era of Trump.

You can argue that making a true anti-war movie is impossible. The cinematic treatment inevitably glamorizes conflict and prompts the audience to pick a side. Tim Kasher has the same issue. Cursive detractors and diehards can agree that the band’s classics, 2000’s Domestica and 2003’s The Ugly Organ, are cautionary tales of unchecked male insecurity. But Kasher turned divorce and artistic narcissism into such compelling theater that they could feel like endorsements.

Since 2003, he has tried to live up to and downplay The Ugly Organ while trying not to repeat it—the only thing more depressing than The Ugly Organ and Domestica themselves, after all, would be a married 44-year-old continuing to autopsy every last sexual and artistic failure. On Vitriola, the first Cursive album in six years, he revisits those career peaks from a different angle. This is the first Cursive record to feature original drummer Clint Schnase and Saddle Creek house producer Mike Mogis in 12 years, but, more important, the first with a cellist since The Ugly Organ. They haven’t sounded this inspired since.

Given his multiple projects and side-hustles, Kasher won’t make a Cursive record for any old thing. Cursive records have to be about the only things—marriage, art, sex, religion; even their least-imaginative work required a libretto. Though Cursive had already started work on new music in 2016, you can probably guess what motivated Kasher to finish this one. He faces the same issue as most artists who have recently pivoted to politics: Do you have an obligation to do more than restate the obvious? On Vitriola, screaming “I’ve had enough” suffices. “Free to Be or Not to Be You and Me” and “Under the Rainbow” aren’t expressing anything novel about existential torment or economic oppression. “It’s Gonna Hurt” doesn’t elaborate much beyond its declarative title, because it doesn’t need to.

Kasher may be a songwriter, a new label impresario, a bar owner, and often seen as synonymous with Cursive. But Cursive is still a band, one that once fashioned an orchestral version of punk where the pretty instruments became primitive prison weaponry. Bowed cellos sounded like a dulled handsaw. Pianos were pounded into wooden shards. The guitars would have twinkled were they not wadded into tinfoil balls. But swerving away from The Ugly Organ brought them toward the middle of the road, turning Cursive into a more conventional rock act. Since Vitriola is meant as a soundtrack to the horror show of daily life, much of it sounds like a second-wave emo band falling down a flight of stairs and hitting every one. And it’s not just the violence of Cursive’s early years that returns—their softer moments have never sounded so beautiful or vulnerable.

Kasher credits new multi-instrumentalist Patrick Newbery with the interlude “Remorse" and its fragile piano and feedback conjure a hungover sunrise so clearly even the title seems redundant. The anxiety of an overdraft fee is embedded in the pins-and-needles guitar flickers of “Life Savings.” “Noble Soldier/Dystopian Lament” slowly tightens the noose as Kasher gives a farewell address to his idealistic former self. Megan Siebe’s cello is the pure embodiment of Cursive, offering a stereotype of sadness while harboring a disturbing capacity for viciousness.

That used to be true for Kasher, too, but his poison pen has mellowed these days to a fatherly mix of earnestness and sarcasm. By the second track, he already makes his “our civil war ain’t so civil anymore” and “thoughts and prayers” quips. He used to call himself full of shit, but now he’s just full of scatological puns—at least three on “Pick Up the Pieces” alone. He grinds through “Ouroboros” for a seemingly interminable six minutes with time-for-some-game-theory lyricism: “The voice of man has been exposed as vitriol/Don’t gotta read between the HTML.”

If these “Weekend Update”-style wisecracks aren’t overly useful as a political tool, they’re at least helpful in confronting the day’s latest outrage. “I’ve been screaming for years/But it gets me nowhere,” he bleated on The Ugly Organ. He picked a good time to start screaming again, if only because so many others are, too, albeit to mixed results. On Vitriola, Cursive songs again supply the satisfaction of blaring your horn at a shitty driver or hanging up on a robocall—fighting against an encroaching sense of cosmic impotence with contained acts of victimless aggression.

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