Over the past two decades, Cursive has become known for writing smart, tightly woven concept albums where frontman Tim Kasher turns his unflinching gaze on specific, oftentimes challenging themes, and examines them with an incisively brutal honesty. 2000’s Domestica dealt with divorce; 2003’s The Ugly Organ tackled art, sex, and relationships; 2006’s Happy Hollow skewered organized religion; 2009’s Mama, I’m Swollen grappled with the human condition and social morality; and 2012’s I Am Geminiexplored the battle between good and evil. But the band’s remarkable eighth full-length, Vitriola, required a different approach — one less rigidly themed and more responsive as the band struggles with existentialism veering towards nihilism and despair; the ways in which society, much like a writer, creates and destroys; and an oncoming dystopia that feels eerily near at hand.
Cursive has naturally developed a pattern of releasing new music every three years, creating records not out of obligation, but need, with the mindset that each record could potentially be their last. 2015 came and went, however, and the band remained silent for their longest period to date. But the members of Cursive have remained busy with solo records, a movie (the Kasher-penned and directed No Resolution), and running businesses (the band collectively owns and operates hometown Omaha’s mainstay bar/venue, O’Leaver’s). The band even launched their own label, 15 Passenger, through which they’re steadily reissuing their remastered back catalogue, as well as new albums by Kasher, Campdogzz, and David Bazan and Sean Lane. And like many others, the band members have been caught up in the inescapable state of confusion and instability that plagues their home country, and seems to grow more chaotic with each passing day.
Which brings us to 2018 and Vitriola. For the first time since Happy Hollow, the album reunites Kasher, guitarist/singer Ted Stevens and bassist Matt Maginn with founding drummer Clint Schnase, as well as co-producer Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes, M. Ward, Jenny Lewis) at ARC Studios in Omaha. They’re joined by Patrick Newbery on keys (who’s been a full-time member for years) and touring mainstay Megan Siebe on cello. Schnase and Maginn are in rare form, picking up right where they left off with a rhythmic lockstep of viscera-vibrating bass and toms, providing a foundation for Kasher and Stevens’ intertwining guitars and Newbery and Siebe’s cinematic flourishes. The album runs the sonic gamut between rich, resonant melodicism, Hitchcockian anxiety, and explosive catharsis — and no Cursive album would be complete without scream-along melodies and lyrics that, upon reflection, make for unlikely anthems.
There’s a palpable unease that wells beneath Vitriola’s simmering requiems and fist-shakers. Fiery opener “Free To Be or Not To Be You and Me” reflects the album’s core: a search for meaning that keeps coming up empty, and finding the will to keep going despite the fear of a dark future. The album directs frustration and anger at not only modern society and the universe at large, but also inward towards ourselves. On “Under the Rainbow,” disquiet boils into rage that indicts the complacency of the privileged classes; “Ghost Writer” has a catchy pulse that belies Kasher chastising himself for writing about writing; and “Noble Soldier/Dystopian Lament” is a haunting look at potential societal collapse that provides little in the way of hope but balances beauty and horror on the head of a pin.
Vitriola raises a stark question: is this it? Is everything simply broken, leaving us hopeless and nihilistic? Maybe not. There can be reassurance in commiseration, and the album is deeply relatable: Cursive may not be offering the answers, but there is hope in knowing you’re not alone in the chaos.
In late 2014, Meat Wave’s 24-year-old frontman Chris Sutter found himself facing the end of the relationship he had been in since he was 12 years old. “When you’re in something like that for so long, it doesn’t shield you from the world, but it softens your reality,” he explains. “A long relationship like that gives you confidence.” He likens the experience of being single for the first time in his adult life to being an Amish kid on Rumspringa. “I was just going nuts, making all the mistakes that you could make. It made for a really whack, fucked up time—very confused, always unsure—and that led to a bunch of shit,” Sutter laughs grimly.
The Chicago punks had already made their second album Delusion Moon, a hardcore blast that castigated the weak excuses we ply for poor behaviour. That would come out in 2015. In the interim, Sutter started keeping a notebook to try and document the profound mood swings and torrents of anxiety that he was experiencing in the wake of the split, writing stream-of-consciousness poems about his feelings from day to day, city to city. One term kept coming out: the incessant.
“I think that was the best way to describe this feeling—and I think a lot of people can attest to this—of this overwhelming, oncoming emotion,” says Sutter. “Feeling overwhelmed by the biggest thing going on in your life and the smallest fucking thing: they’re all oncoming, like dominos. It’s a swelling. A pyramid. A crescendo. It stems from living recklessly. And selfishly. And regrettably. During this phase of my life, this feeling would come up a lot—out to dinner with my dad, in the van on tour—and I never used to have this kind of anxiety.”
Putting a name on it made Sutter feel a bit better. The Incessant became both the title and guiding light for Meat Wave’s third album, but not before some wobbles on Sutter’s part. Whereas Meat Wave’s previous albums had meted out judgements on the world, now he was writing brutally unvarnished lyrics about himself: about his self-indulgence, arrogance, fear of the future, isolation, and feeling totally at the whim of uncontrollable emotions. On tour for Delusion Moon, he began reflecting on the “grey cloud” he felt the material would cast over Meat Wave’s past and future. “I got cold feet,” he says. “I had never written music that was this personal and confrontational with the self. I expressed to the others that I wanted to scrap the songs and start over, which they respected. I was uncomfortable to share songs with people that reflected on a destructive period in my life.” But despite Sutter’s conviction, something in the back of his head told him he would be a fool to abandon the material.
“There was this realisation that I felt like the music I had written prior to this was more of a defence mechanism of sorts by not writing about what was going on in my life and not confronting myself, and instead looking outward at other people and what they were doing,” he says. “There are artists like Fiona Apple who I love and always look to—she bares herself and her soul and is so honest about her life, what’s going on with her emotionally. I realised I could either write something that doesn’t mean as much to me or I could write what means absolutely everything to me. I couldn’t keep doing the same thing. I had to try and grow as a writer and musician.”
And thank god he did. The Incessant is a bracing, emotional punk record that confronts taking responsibility for your actions with dark humour and self-deprecation, drawing influence from acts like The Breeders, Hot Snakes, Drive Like Jehu, and, yes, Fiona Apple, as much as Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and the poems of Emily Dickinson and Sutter’s friend Hannah Gamble. On that literary tip, Sutter majored in journalism, and says his studies applied here more than ever. “I had this amazing professor whose whole thing was—and it’s very simple, but it stuck with me—what we’re doing is trying to uncover the truth, or truths. I applied that exactly to what was going on with me, because I tended to run away from the truth or ignore it.”
He cites the assaultive vocals and terse riffs of opener “To Be Swayed” as one of the truest realisations of that impulse. “My only question going into that song was, why the hell am I so wishy-washy and so controlled by my very changing emotions? Trying to describe your true feelings is really difficult, really exhausting, but I feel like I really nailed what I was experiencing.” That wave of changing emotions is evident across The Incessant: Sutter is self-lacerating on “Mask” (written in a 10-minute blast after seeing Thee Oh Sees live), the choppy “Bad Man”, and the spiny, drawling “Leopard Print Jet Ski”, whose ace title came from looking an old friend up on Facebook one day, to find him bragging about having bought precisely such a thing. “I loved everything about the phrase,” says Sutter. “How it looked, the imagery. It stuck with me, and I viewed the leopard print jet ski as a metaphor for liberation and freedom and confidence. The song is this ironic first-person narrative of fucking taking the leopard print jet ski out and getting away from everything, in a very selfish, wrong way. It’s a metaphor for how I was living my life, and much like a lot of other songs on the album, running away from my problems.”
Elsewhere on The Incessant, Sutter exposes his most vulnerable side. Sounding like a less jubilant Japandroids track, “Tomosaki” is a nakedly sincere love song to the cat that he lost in the split, written while ugly-crying on the floor of the shared apartment he was about to leave behind. “Entranced by the mist of life / Does he sense I’ve gone awry? / My guy / Let him roam outside / Meditate on his afterlife,” Sutter roars. “That was huge for me as a songwriter. I’ve never written a song like that. I think that’s the power of something that touches you so deeply, like a cat that you’re not going to be able to see any more.” On the Ella Fitzgerald-inspired lament “Birdland” and rampaging snippet “At The Lake”—propelled by drummer Ryan Wizniak’s stark charge—he reflects on a loss of innocence, and ultimately finds serenity.
Bassist Joe Gac produced Meat Wave’s previous records, but for The Incessant, the three-piece achieved their dream of working with legendary Chicago engineer Steve Albini, tracking and mixing the album in just four days. “Between his music and the things he’s done, bands he’s recorded, he’s the real deal,” says Sutter. “I don’t know if Joe would admit this, but the way he works and records, he’s like a student of Albini. It felt like the next step for us, and it was a good, quick, raw experience.” Albini’s famed dynamic range is best heard in “Killing The Incessant”, the record’s epic, raging crescendo of a closing song. “Incessant / Tried to see it / Ended eaten / Though now fear couldn’t blanket me / No hand / Discriminates the other / Here’s to killing / The incessant / I don’t need it / Here’s to killing / The incessant is defeated”, Sutter rails in stark, stabbing fragments. A tumult of noise churns, before giving way to a peaceful fingerpicked acoustic pattern.
“Towards the end of writing this album, I began to wonder exactly what the incessant sounded like,” says Sutter. “Like, can I soundtrack that feeling? So that’s how the crescendo came about. All that fucking tension. It was about shedding the ego. I think as humans we have more control than maybe we choose to believe sometimes. So this is trying to put it all at ease. Reject the fear and shame and the things that aren’t relative to my betterment and wellbeing. The acoustic ditty at the end is the sigh of relief. And a moving-forward of sorts.”
Of sorts. In July 2016, Sutter was due in Denver to be best man at his father’s wedding. The week prior to departing, he started feeling the same minor stomach pains that had plagued him (and which he had ignored) a year earlier. Upon boarding the plane, the sensation intensified; once he landed in Denver, he couldn’t sleep from vomiting and shitting all night long. His new girlfriend suggested that it might be his appendix, so they took a trip to the emergency room. After a CT scan, the doctor confirmed Sutter’s girlfriend’s suspicions, and said they had to remove the appendix—which was two to three times larger than it should have been—immediately.
“I woke up unable to walk, or move,” says Sutter. “It was the most physically traumatic experience of my life. I spent five days in the hospital—basically our entire vacation—and missed the wedding. The doctor told us that it was in the top five worst appendectomies she’d ever seen, and that I could have died if I’d waited any longer. I guess I’d had a ruptured appendix for about an entire year, and it had ruptured again this past summer.”
Recovery took months, though he played shows against his better judgement. Sutter’s final face-off with the incessant, that long, dark year of staring his darkest parts in the face, gave him a lot more empathy for the people he used to slam in songs in the past. “In general, writing about what I was going through made me more of a compassionate kind of person,” he says. “I think there’s a lot more to uncover within the self than to look outward at what’s going on and annoying you around you.” Another grim laugh. “I wouldn’t want to write a song bashing anyone, besides myself.”