“I am a chapel. This is the prayer book. These are the parables.” These are the last lyrics sung on Happy Hollow, and they’re a far cry from the usual man-versus-woman treatises we’re used to hearing from Cursive frontman Tim Kasher, who, for the time being, anyway, has delved into the far more expansive realm of man versus God. It’s a literate take on battles with moral ambiguity after a Catholic upbringing in Small Town America. And it’s also a gigantic leap forward for this Omaha quartet who continue to be one of the few hard rock bands to realize a level of change (bordering on total reinvention) is necessary to keep their chosen genre interesting.
The band’s new full-length comes after their second extended hiatus and as the follow-up to 2002’s The Ugly Organ, which propelled them to new levels of popularity. They even made their way onto a tour with the Cure before the departure of their cellist led to some time off and a musical re-evaluation. The new songs are noticeably heavier, almost brutal at times, yet the instrumentation is more varied, letting atmospheric interludes usher in unsettling calms before a brazen horn section pushes its way to the front. Tracks like the wildly dissonant ‘Big Bang’ (as fine a Darwinian-themed rock tune as ever there were) manage unexpectedly to turn Unwound-style riffs into brass-heavy hooks, and similar musical surprises continue to raise the stakes throughout the record. From extended dramatic pauses to funky guitar breaks and the guest appearance of an unknown female soul singer, Happy Hollow takes more chances in an hour than the average hard rock act considers in its entire career. Add in some potentially controversial subject matter that knocks excessive patriotism and tells tales of homosexual clergymen, and you’ve got yourself an album unique enough to stand a head above just about everything else in its field. Their self-proclaimed “hymns for the heathens” is an incredibly inspired, envelope-pushing batch of songs that should serve as a model for like-minded bands everywhere.