Saddle Creek | Cursive | Reviews


The Ugly Organ

Author: Ben French
03/27/2003 | | | Album Review
Cursive presents its fourth full-length album, The Ugly Organ, as a work of musical theater. The album's liner notes include stage directions as a guide to its jumbled action, and a quick glance through these notes reveals a strange cast of characters, including "Organist," "Harlequins," and "Harold, dressed in doctor's costume." I am tempted to call it an indie rock opera -- mostly because I love envisioning Elton John begging for the part of Harold so that he might add a new costume to his wardrobe -- but in truth there is no coherent plot line here to warrant inventing the category. There's just a singular dedication to one theme: Self-absorbtion. (Ah, my favorite topic!)
The Ugly Organ is essentially about the expressive power of self-loathing. Its lyrics focus primarily on how musicians often use depression to fuel their creativity, which commonly leads to incredible self-indulgence. Cursive uses the theatric setting to drive this concept home and the final product is a little less like Tommy and a little more like "Waiting For Guffman." The songs of The Ugly Organ aren't sung by heroic or majestic protagonists (Sorry, Elton). They are performed by pathetic characters. People who are lonely, jealous and desperate. People who obsess about their problems. People eager to share their problems with a welcoming audience.
This is fitting stuff for Tim Kasher (ahem), the ever-self-aware Cursive frontman. The band's most recent LP, Domestica, was something like a classic-case "divorce album." Thinly veiled lyrics. Telling title. Anger and pain. Something like a louder, simpler version of Blood On The Tracks. But The Ugly Organ is different. Kasher is still self-aware -- even more so, I'd say -- but he's also aware of his self-awareness. If this sounds schizo, that's good. This album is self-reflexive in a very scary way. For instance, Cursive offers listeners no less than three songs about songwriting: "Some Red Handed Sleight Of Hand," "Art Is Hard" and "Butcher The Song." On the first two, Kasher attacks musicians for feigning emotional turmoil to boost CD sales, while at the same time acknowledging he's been guilty of the same crime.
"Why do I feel like I'm any different?" Kasher sings on "Sleight Of Hand." "I've been making money off my indifference. We all pass the hat around. This is my body, this is the blood I found on my hands after I wrote this album." On "Butcher The Song," the album's most potent track, the singer lets us listen in on a scene from his own life. We're in a car and he's yelling at his girlfriend/wife for bringing up their issues at the "wrong time and place."
Tim: Why should i play the fall guy to your love? I keep getting stuck. What dumb luck.
Her: So write it in your dumb lyrics.Yeah that's the time and place to ring out your bullshit. And each album I'll get shit on a little more. Who's Tim latest whore? No, that's not fair. No, that's just obscene.
During the song's final act, Kasher turns to the audience and dives into an impassioned soliloquy about his frustration with his own self-abuse. He explains that he's writing "songs to entertain," but that his audience only wants pain, and songs about his "deepest sins," and the end result is often "a horrible mess." The singer then explodes in an ego orgasm that is both highly intoxicating and highly perverse. He screams that he's "been screaming for years," but that it gets him nowhere. The listener revels in his emotional torment, proving himself wrong and right at the same time. Before the song ends, Kasher sounds as though he's gone completely insane, as the words of his ex ring in his ears like an ugly organ, and the he prepares to cut off his other ugly organ.
"What a day to sever such ugly extremitites," he exclaims. (Now how many times have I said that to myself in the morning?)
The selfish struggle of "Butcher" seems to be resolved a few songs later on the equally disarming song, "The Gentleman Caller," which begins with a similar psychotic urgency but eventually turns into a lullaby for the depressed masses. At first, the band wails away as the protagonist talks to a woman who's just discovered that her lover is cheating on her. In the second verse, the singer, "The Gentelman Caller" in this tune, offers to help: "You wanna get your bad man good? Well, are you in the mood?" But just when you think the guy is going to do something really awful to this woman, Kasher and Cursive bring the music's anxiety down to nothing and assure the audience, "The worst is over."
(Reviewer whipes brow and sighs, "Phew.")
Easy listening, this ain't. Cursive newcomer Gretta Cohn adds a new texture to the band's sometimes two-dimensional, loud-and-soft sound, but, if anything, she underlines the creepy vibe. Along with Kasher's mad organ playing, Cohn's cello brings a scary-movie feel to the music. It's like Bernard Herman's "Psycho" score crossed with some scene-setting music from a bad Boris Karloff movie. But somehow The Ugly Organ has enough pop appeal and pseudo-uplifting sentiment to make it listenable. In particular, the accessibility of "The Recluse," "Driftwood: A Fairy Tale" and "Staying Alive" offset the record's more challenging songs. The last of those three revisits the "worst is over" mantra from "The Gentleman Caller" and treats it like a atmospheric overture to self-preservation. It's a pleasant reward for the patient listener.
The Ugly Organ raises more questions about the merits of self-indulgence than it answers. For starters, can a singer and/or band make fun of self-absorption while still trying to make self-absorption sound cool? I'd like to hear some classic self-obsessed artists chime in on this one. What would someone like Thom Yorke make of the closing of "Butcher The Song?" Of Kasher's desire to cut off his dick and wave it like the Academy Award of Indie Rock? My guess is that he would approve. It seems to me that as long as there are overly self-aware artists making strong self-indulgent rock there will be overly self-obsessed music fans clamoring to buy it.
The Ugly Organ

The Ugly Organ

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