Cursive have never really been an “easy” band, neither to define nor to listen to. In terms of the former, they’ve tended to float around emo and indie-rock spheres but it’s rarely been easier to pin down than that, something that’s often seeped into their lyrics and themes to allow them to explore riskier, more ambitious material than so many of their peers. And they’ve not rested on their laurels in this regard either, with almost every album of theirs to date exploring one facet or another of humanity with almost surgical levels of detail. Sure, the accusations of pretentiousness are hard to really deny in most instances, but it’s never not a deep or thought-provoking listen.
So in a way, it’s kind of ironic that Vitriola ends up thematically as perhaps Cursive’s most conventional album to date in taking aim at the current US political situation, something that’s proven fertile ground indeed for numerous acts over the past couple of years. This being a Cursive album, though, it’s unlikely that any traditional routes are going to be taken to reach a similar goal, and indeed, Vitriola does highlight its points through greater abstraction and imagery, but that’s why it ultimately works. There’s a layered eloquence in the way Cursive articulate their protest, and it comes together for something that’s pretty great.
And yes, it’s primarily in Tim Kasher’s writing where Vitriola finds its greatest footing, and how it twists the typical discourse of overcast tension in more off-kilter ways to address these different issues, all while remaining compelling throughout. And given how tiresome and repetitive these political screeds have gotten lately, it’s good to see Cursive throwing their net out wider for more interesting angles. Under The Rainbow might be the most thematically simplistic in its assertions of a fully-functioning country slipping further away, but the overall breadth is noticeably wider, like Pick Up The Pieces’ realisations of the current generation being the ones who’ll inevitably have to sort out the mess that’s been made, or the self-perpetuating divide that occurs through simple lack of conversation and self-awareness on Ouroboros. The fact that the album ends with Noble Soldier / Dystopian Lament feels even more significant, the open-ended dive into the unknown to ponder whether things can get better, or if this is just how it is now. It’s definitely bleak, but that’s ultimately the point, and the pathos and – as the title would suggest – vitriol that Kasher displays only extends that point further and makes it more engaging.
You can tell that the same thing was aimed for to a certain degree in the instrumentation as well, but Cursive don’t quite hit the same results here. There’s definitely still a hard hit throughout in the ramshackle scuzziness of Free To Be Or Not To Be You And Me and Ghost-Writer, and the fact that both Ouroboros and Noble Soldier / Dystopian Lament – the two longest songs here by a considerable degree – end up the most gripping with their jagged, blackened stomps is a testament to how well Cursive can craft a naturally-evolving piece. That’s not always the case though, and in instances like the compressed intro and out-of-nowhere strings passages on Pick Up The Pieces, or just the generally shaky Remorse, it’s incredibly easy to notice when Cursive take a dip. It’s also not out of the question to suggest that their overall more angular and scruffily-produced take on indie-rock can be slight off-putting, but that edge feels necessary and as the default setting, it’s something that Cursive are notably adept at getting their teeth into.
Just overall though, this wasn’t really expected at all. For as much as Cursive have been in the background for a while now, that’s really how it’s stayed, but the fire and tension on Vitriola suggests a band ready to step out of the shadows in a way that so many of their contemporaries have been unable to muster. As a dissection of the modern world, this is a smart and well-thought-out as you’re likely to get, and though it’s not particularly populist in its execution, the force that it bites down with is something pretty potent indeed. Cursive have never been a huge band, but they’ve been an undervalued one for a long time, and it’s albums like this that show why that is.
For fans of: Sparta, Desaparicidos, Murder By Death
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Vitriola’ by Cursive is released on 5th October on Big Scary Monsters.