Artistic comebacks like Vitriola don’t happen often enough.
For the last decade, Cursive have been lost in the woods. After the formula-defying Happy Hollow, the band returned with 2009’s Mama, I’m Swollen – a collection of serviceable, by-the-books songs – and 2012’s I Am Gemini, a limp album that sounded like the work of a band whose well had run dry. When the band announced Vitriola, their eighth album, it was easy to worry that the band would turn in another album that would be forgotten about after a handful of listens, in favor of established classics like The Ugly Organ and Domestica.
If those two albums are your preferred versions of Cursive, Vitriola will be right up your alley. Mixing the overdramatic lyricism of the former, with the occasionally blistering anger of the latter, the album feels like Tim Kasher’s found a second wind in the six years since I Am Gemini. Part of this is likely due to the world’s persistent hellscape, and while he could lean into writing about that – “So, this is it/ The world just fell to shit/ And we’re left holding the bag,” he states succinctly on “Pick Up the Pieces – Vitriola concerns itself frequently with a side effect of that hellscape: raw, uncut existential dread.
Kasher attacks this dread head-on by being the angriest guy on the block about the whole thing, and his white-hot anger has been sorely missed. Opener “Free to Be or Not to Be You and Me,” with its menacing bassline and stabbing drum beats, makes this point clear immediately, as he searches for meaning in his life, only to come up angry that he still has to live it: “So yes, I’m pissed/ I feel cursed with life/ I can’t just exist,” he shouts. Later on, during “Everlasting,” he tackles mankind’s obsessions with immortality with a characteristic shrug: “We think we want to live forever/ It’s an unrealistic feat/ I don’t want to live forever/ I can’t bear the agony.” On standout “Ouroboros,” he clarifies some of the bones he has to pick with the world, which include the internet (“We were blessed with an enlightened intellect/ Enlightened intellect made the internet/ The internet gave the world a mouthpiece/ That swallowed our enlightened intellect”) and the success he shouted so much about in The Ugly Organ (“The writer will obsess over success/ Success is like the carrot on a stick/ Once the writer finds it’s just a carrot/ The writer takes a shit all over it”).
Vitriola’s furious tone is elevated by how bass-centric most songs are here. Bassist Matt Maginn does a lot of heavy lifting here, his grimy lines making the album feel alienating at times, like in the case of the spooky tones achieved on lead single “Life Savings,” or as a complement to the grinding guitar tones of the angular “Ouroboros,” with each made more dramatic by the interplay between Maginn and cellist Megan Seibe. Some songs keep this more subtle, but others, like “It’s Gonna Hurt” and “Noble Soldier / Dystopian Lament,” get tremendous mileage out of their interactions, the cello complementing Maginn’s persistently doom-laden chugging perfectly.
Some songs, of course, fail to hit the mark in quite the same way. “Life Savings” is a flaccid potshot at capitalism (“Don’t sell yourself to me/ You do it for the money/ You sell the dream to me/ You do it for the money”), while “Under the Rainbow” (continuing Kasher’s fondness for Wizard of Oz references) takes further shots at apocalyptic obsessions and American disillusionment (as it does more elegantly elsewhere on the album) in ways that fall too far to one side of the line between cleverness and heavy-handedness: “Checking the news, checking the stocks/ Checking for clues, checking the doomsday clock/ Who’s checking in on us?/ Under the rainbow/ No god, no gold, nowhere to go.” The moody, piano-driven “Remorse” is a wonderful interlude, but at the same time its short length makes it feel half-finished, leaving you wanting more from the song.
Artistic comebacks like Vitriola don’t happen often enough. It gives us a better, sharper, version of the band that was so easy to fall in love with a decade ago. Thankfully, Kasher’s anger has grown to fit the harsh times we live in. After two lackluster albums, it shouldn’t be a surprise that their return to form wouldn’t be without bumps. With that in mind, though, it still gives us the best, most powerful version of the band we’ve had in over a decade.