Omaha is a city of around 400,000 inhabitants, making it one of the largest cities in Nebraska, but surrounding this metropolitan center are hundreds of small hamlets. These towns represent Everytown, USA and the Middle America ideals, family values, conservative lifestyles and humble, everyday people. These towns aren’t simply isolated in the Midwest, mind you; they span across the entire country. I, myself, grew up in a small town…well, small for Southern California at a population of 30,000, but it had that rural, offbeat charm, lots of avocados, and a large religious contingent. It also had a former Ku Klux Klan leader as one of its residents, and a fairly widespread crystal meth problem. No matter how small the town looks on the outside, there is always, always something dark bubbling underneath the surface.
Cursive understands just how uneven the stereotypes surrounding small towns are, and creates their own musical drama surrounding a fictional town on Happy Hollow. Imagine it as something of a fucked-up Pleasantville or Our Town, only frontman Tim Kasher play a far less sympathetic narrator than Thornton Wilder. And unlike Domestica, this album’s “concept” is clear yet loosely woven, dealing overall with recurring themes of religion and the malaise of living in this so-called Happy Hollow, without necessarily projecting the same characters into every song.
The record gets off to a slightly predictable start with the opening lines “welcome one/and welcome all/to our small town,” and leads the way toward the album’s 14 “hymns for the heathen,” as the closing track states. Though as “Opening the Hymnal” transitions into “Babies,” things become much more interesting. A trudging, post-punk song in the vein of much of Cursive’s familiar past material, it presents a melodic reminder of how much the band rocks. This continues into “Dorothy at Forty,” a Wizard of Oz referencing rocker that contains some of the band’s most jagged riffs, as well as some choice vocal freakouts on the part of Kasher, along with the cynical musings, “dreams are all you have/dreams have held you back/dreamers never live/only dream of it.”
With the departure of cellist Gretta Cohn, the band lost a key element in their sound, which has been replaced, largely, by the addition of horns. In “Big Bang,” said horns blare over a chaotic, sludgy progression, as Kasher ponders intelligent design, observing “there was this big bang once, now we’re still learning how to use our thumbs.” Meanwhile, the slower “Bad Sects” focuses on the confessions of a gay priest, delivering the refrain “I know that it’s wrong, because we’re told that it’s wrong.” Meanwhile, just up the road, the band revisits poor old Dorothy, who has clearly had enough on “Dorothy Dreams of Tornadoes,” in the end finding Kasher screaming “This city’s killing us!”
The jazzy highlight “Retreat!!” comes as an indictment of religion and the absurdity of reliance on a God nobody can agree on, ending with a gospel chant of “Lord, let us go!” More scandal with men of the cloth abound on “At Conception,” as Jeannie, a teenage girl whose boyfriend is sent to war, but becomes involved with (surprise, surprise) a priest, and Kasher ingeniously incants during a rousing coda, “what happens in confession/stays in the confessional.” “Rise Up! Rise Up!” brings Happy Hollow to a climax, the song being one of the most upbeat moments and one of the most darkly celebratory, Kasher observing “Rise Up! Rise Up! And live a full life/because when it’s over, it’s done.”
There are a handful of songs that could benefit from stronger hooks, but overall Happy Hollow contains some of the most melodically interesting tracks of Cursive’s career. This just goes to show that an interwoven thematic thread need not produce a prog album, but that should come to no surprise to fans of a band that has already proven it twice before.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.