Empathy is nearly a forgotten expression in art. When neurosis and the public dissection of one’s personal carnage are so easy and cathartic to get out, the instinct is to let it fly. Tim Kasher’s pen is used to scribbling on the minutiae of his wrecked life (impressively at that), but on Cursive’s fifth proper full-length his lyrics step into the shoes of others and build a town called Happy Hollow. Though high on the empathy, Happy Hollow is no populist message. Through fourteen tracks that Kasher calls “hymns for the heathens” (the closer bears that name), the album takes on religion, consumption, homophobia, military girth, entitlement and most everything else the red-state masses regard highly. Let’s go through a few of those hymns.
First Hymn: The Son-of-God Complex
A blast of horns is the first thing through your speakers on “Opening the Hymnal/Babies,” and it sets the tone for the flurry of brass arrangements to follow on the album. The song’s first half welcomes you to the town of Happy Hollow, and then goes into the first hymn, a downer reminder that you’re not the new messiah: “This is all we are, we simply exist. You’re not the chosen one.”
Second Hymn: The Prodigal Damsel
“Dorothy at Forty” is a schizophrenic and furious damnation of American’s sense of entitlement. “More paid vacation, more entertainment, more compensation, more gratuitous gratification. Dorothy, wake up; it’s time for work.” Kasher’s voice cracks on the line “gratuitous gratification” and is one of his few patented screams on the record.
Third Hymn: The Tree Stump of Knowledge
How freaking topical. “Big Bang” takes on the utter stupidity of those who are pushing intelligent design as an alternative to science. “They say there was this big bang once, but the clergy doesn’t agree. There was this big bang once, but it don’t jive with Adam and Eve.” By this time, you realize that the horns are here to stay; they’re filling the gaps left by cellist Gretta Cohn’s departure.
Sixth Hymn: Sodom Falls to Ashes
“Dorothy Dreams of Tornadoes” is one of the album’s most straightforward tunes, one of the few that would fit in on 2003’s The Ugly Organ, this album’s predecessor. It’s a glum story of the hopes and dreams of a couple crushed by routine, punctuated by this line: “Those nights after a double shift the dashed plans you never dared to live. They used to light up your eyes. Those bulbs have long burned out.”
Ninth Hymn: Immaculate Exception
This one is just a little too obvious. “At Conception” is the tale of a staunch pro-life priest who impregnates a young parishioner. How very ironic, Tim.
Tenth Hymn: The Demons of Mary Magdalene:
“So-So Gigolo” is a terrible bore at first, but the dragging verse sets up a punchy chorus that makes it all better. In fact, much of the album is like this, with either a subpar verse or chorus that sets up the other. Happy Hollow requires patience, but give it enough time and it will grow on you.
Thirteen Hymn: Hiding in Confessions
This is the album’s most powerful song and, incidentally, it’s the first time Kasher is singing only about himself. “Rise Up! Rise Up!” is a statement for humanism, accepting our existence as it is, and not longing for the unknown in religion. As the title suggests, there is a serious fist-pumping, rah-rah vibe. “Do you want to hear my confession? Here it is. I wasted half my life on the thought that I’d live forever. I wasn’t raised to seize the day but to work and worship, because that he that livith and believith supposedly never dies.”
Fourteenth Hymn: An Afterward
“Hymns for the Heathen” sums up the album with a bouncy, slightly condescending sounding list of the hymns that led up to the final track.
Happy Hollow is the most spastic of all Cursive releases, twitching between messy verses, loud horn arrangements, kitchen-sink choruses and uncomfortable changes. It’s an often frustrating listen, but in the end the album is a triumph.