Cursive’s ‘Ugly Organ’ Should Still Be Embraced (From a Distance)

Ian Cohen

By Ian Cohen

on 11.26.14 in Features

In the event that the central metaphor of The Ugly Organ is somehow lost on you, “Butcher the Song” makes it painfully obvious: Tim Kasher, the frontman for Cursive, has a dick for a brain. In the first verse, an ex-lover complains of being used as fodder for his lyrics: Her biggest insult isn’t that Kasher was a lousy partner, but that his music sucks as well. Needless to say, her voice is provided by Tim Kasher. In the second verse, he cynically addresses his own fan base, which exploded after he released 2000′s Domestica, a barely fictionalized account of his bitter divorce. “I’m writing songs to entertain, but these people…they just want pain,” he sings, and in the sense that Cursive’s subsequent output has failed to measure up to 2003′s The Ugly Organ, his indictment sticks. Kasher brings the song to a gruesome, inevitable climax — “GET OUT THE BUTCHER’S KNIFE!” — begging for castration. Which would also make it a lobotomy.

‘This is the lot of the Serious, Sexually Frustrated Young White Male in its purest form.’

“Butcher the Song” is actually one of the funnier transmissions from The Ugly Organ, whose Serious, Sexually Frustrated Young White Male point of view has been able to clear rooms ever since it was released. As it gets the deluxe reissue treatment following a week of horrifying revelations about the hetero male sex drive, it seems like a particularly noxious stinkbomb. Next to Weezer‘s Pinkerton, no other classic emo record is more likely to be embraced from a healthy distance. After all, relating to or identifying with Kasher’s misanthropic tendencies can be seen as tantamount to agreeing with him, or even worse, being him.

And that is not a healthy place to be. The Ugly Organ does not document an exciting kind of misanthropy, that of a misunderstood genius or love-’em-and-leave-’em heartthrob in the manner of Afghan Whigs‘ similarly eviscerating Gentlemen. The narrator of these songs is assumed to be Kasher, and the narrator of these songs is shockingly petty and self-obsessed, incapable of relating to another human being, and incapable of finding any relief in the privilege of having a respected and popular rock band to air out his grievances. This is the lot of the Serious, Sexually Frustrated Young White Male in its purest form, and Kasher tries to defuse or at least excuse his actions by beating his critics to the punch and admitting to his own cynicism and the futility of the enterprise in “Butcher the Song” — “I’ve been screaming for years but it gets me nowhere.” Which is only something a complete and utter asshole is willing to do.

Kasher’s efforts resulted in the first post-emo album — chronologically, sonically and thematically. The first of the three is not entirely his doing. When most people proudly employ the term “emo revival” in 2014, they’re referring to its most respectable incarnation, one with parameters that put it astride “indie rock” during the late ’90s. Despite being centered in Omaha around that time, Cursive’s label Saddle Creek only had a tangential relationship to Midwestern emo — it was more of an Elephant 6 or K Records endeavor, a collective with distinct personalities that just happened to predate the MySpace-abetted and teen-focused oversharing that typified emo as the 2000s moved on.

‘Whenever Kasher’s warped romantic ideals (both in regards to sex and artistry) are challenged by reality, things get catastrophic.’

But in 2002, Saddle Creek cracked the Billboard charts and got reviews in Rolling Stone thanks to monumental efforts from Bright Eyes and Rilo Kiley. Both bands were fronted by photogenic tell-all types who were ultimately based in folk or pop. Kasher was an Ian MacKaye acolyte who was not cute in any way. He was significantly older than his peers and Cursive’s albums were loud and abrasive.

While his peers hit the charts or moved toward ambience or post-rock Kasher brought gnarled theatricality into punk against its will. The Ugly Organ‘s lyrics sheet is presented as a libretto complete with a cast of characters and stage directions. And the band nerds get to join in with the drama kids — “Art is Hard” turns into mock-ska with slippery, snarky trombones, and the record is punctuated with screeching organ and, most notably, Gretta Cohn’s cello. This was the only Cursive record on which Cohn played and, not coincidentally, the band’s most distinctive and inventive. Cohn’s unconventional playing provided hooks whenever Kasher got stingy — shredding through speed metal riffs on “Some Red Handed Sleight of Hand,” migraine-induced sighs on “The Recluse,” nauseous countermelodies “Butcher the Song” and prodding the sudden movements of “Bloody Murderer.”

Otherwise, there is not a smooth surface on The Ugly Organ. While incrementally more tuneful than in the past, Kasher’s vocals and guitars match his words — a collection of serrated whispers, adenoidal whines, blunt chords, flatted fifths, chromatic scale runs and harmonic scree. Even the frilly, ringing guitars of “The Recluse,” one of the few conventionally pretty moments, are meant to recreate a harsh sunlight through the curtains on a hung-over morning. The record is structured to flow sequentially and establish a narrative despite incompatible tonal and tempo shifts.

And while “Staying Alive” is perhaps supposed to be the “epic closer,” both the reverberating post-rock ambiance and group chorale provide fake uplift. Kasher simply thrashes around a torture chamber of his own head for 10 minutes, voices caroming back and forth and rendering the title as some kind of perverse threat to someone who spends 99 percent of his time creating and assessing the wreckage he causes. The lyrical motif of “the worst is over,” previously heard on “A Gentleman Caller,” is repeated ad nauseum; the point it makes is that while the worst may be over, things aren’t necessarily going to get better.

As a result, The Ugly Organ deconstructs the genre’s lyrical facade by sharing the harrowing experience of a lifer and the ensuing lesson learned: No one is capable of completing or redeeming you and your inner void. And the blame is squarely on you. There’s an underlying desire for some kind of supernatural spiritual experience on The Ugly Organ that’s easier to see in retrospect as Happy Hollow and Mama, I’m Swollen explored more metaphysical concerns. But on The Ugly Organ, whenever Kasher’s warped romantic ideals (both in regards to sex and artistry) are challenged by reality, things get catastrophic.

Kasher’s lyrics incorporate common fantastical imagery — the fly in the spider’s web, Pinocchio, Frankenstein, The Phantom of the Opera — simple devices meant to underline the immaturity of the narrator. “Driftwood: A Fairy Tale” could be read as a Taking Back Sunday-style, accusatory broadside against a woman who mercilessly takes advantage of a poor boy who just wanted to be loved. “He would buy her things and kiss her hair to show he was for real,” Kasher laments. But the woman knows better and understands the true intentions — “it’s an empty love to fill the void.” Or, the liar here believes that acting like some kind of idealized “good boyfriend” makes him “real,” when all of these acts are still based on self — he’s more in love with the idea of being the “good boyfriend” than the real woman.

Earlier on “The Recluse,” we find him, “awake, alone in a woman’s room I hardly know,” as Kasher reckons with the aftermath of a consensual one night stand. He wonders, “Christ, I’m not that desperate” before admitting, “oh no, oh god, I am.” And he can’t seem to grasp that these things happen; some people, good people, who write poetry and whatnot, get laid and get on with it. “A Gentleman Caller” beats “Marvins Room” to the punch by eight or so years in detailing a drunk dialer’s scorched-earth attempt to convince a woman that he’s more worthy of her time than her chump boyfriend. But he’s not saying you can do better. He’s saying you can’t really do much worse. Minutes after “The Recluse,” he’s all but given up on the idea of sex as something other than a weapon and rationalizes by offering disillusionment as some kind of perverse, admirable truth — “I’m not looking for a lover, all these lovers are liars. I would never lie to you.”

‘[The Ugly Organ] serves as a Grand Theft Auto-like world where you can let your worst impulses run wild and free before returning to a normal, everyday existence.’

This kind of last-ditch pleading becomes nearly impossible to bear on the penultimate “Sierra,” which you can only hope isn’t autobiographical. Kasher thinks of a woman and the likely normalcy of her life after leaving him — jogging in the morning, a steady job, a steady man. But there’s also a kid involved. The guy in “Bloody Murderer” and “A Gentleman Caller” and “The Recluse” might actually be responsible for another human being. Toward the end, Kasher begs, “I want my daughter back now,” and he sounds completely honest about that desire. He’s also honest about the fact that he doesn’t deserve it — others have moved on, he hasn’t.

It’s similar to The Wolf of Wall Street in that way, where the self-loathing egomaniac lead loses his child, his wife, the faith in his profession, everything that has meaning. The story is so gripping that it can’t be a total indictment; however, it’s also certainly not an endorsement.

At the time that I believed Ugly Organ to be an accurate, in media res expression of (my) early-20s inner turmoil, here was something I didn’t realize: Tim Kasher was on the verge of his 30s. If this is to be considered advice or an endorsement, it’s one of Scared Straight negative reinforcement. If my fictional college-aged brother or sister who’s into the Hotelier or Perfect Pussy were to ask whether The Ugly Organ was worth checking out, I would strongly recommend it. It’s a lyrically harrowing and strangely catchy set of orchestral punk songs that sounds like little else. It also serves as a Grand Theft Auto-like world where you can let your worst impulses run wild and free before returning to a normal, everyday existence. If you worry about your ability to separate the entertainment from reality, or storytelling from advocacy, well — I would also recommend community service, calling your uncle more often or anything that gets you out of self. Tim Kasher probably would too — the castration is “Butcher the Song” is meant as Van Gogh-like gesture, the most melodramatic way of saying, “this is what I did for you.” And at the same time, telling the listener, “it doesn’t have to be this way.”