Reviews

Album of the Year

Author: Chris Estey
09/29/2004 | Bandoppler | www.bandoppler.com | Feature
Yes. But what year? If it had come out the same time as Berlin or Blood on the Tracks or The Fidelity Wars I might have preferred it more than those records, which are also favorites of mine.

And I'm intentionally dropping those three album titles knowing that they might come up in reference to the themes of Album of the Year, the Good Life's third full-length, which focuses likewise on emotional scars left from a burned-down relationship.

Would you describe yourself as self-destructive? I asked the band's Omaha-based lead singer and songwriter Tim Kasher earlier this year.

"I'd say everybody and my ex-wife would," he replied. "I'm the one still carrying this torch, trying to convince everybody that I'm not."

The first time that I met her I was throwing up in the lady room's stall, Kasher sets the scene on the title track at the start of the album. She asked me if I needed anything. I said I think I spilled my drink. That's how it started—and that's what I'd like to believe.

Everything's right there—and though there are more gripping images to come, starting with the affectionate portrait of a self-mutilating young writer in the very next song, "Night and Day"—right up front comes violent bodily catharsis in an awkward situation, a deferred offer of kindness from misdirected need, an origin story, and perhaps a narrator who can't be trusted.

"Well, everybody still thinks that they can change me," Kasher explains. "My girlfriend now insists that I go to therapy and I'm just like, 'I'm not going. Fuck it, I'm not going to therapy.' And she doesn't really care. I mean, she cares about me so much, but if she can just keep me happy and keep me interested then that's just what she wants.

"Because it's good—when it's good."

So then he has to write and record an album that possesses someone like me, a 38 year old guy who should know better than to be consumed by an attractively depressing, surprisingly literate 53:34 minutes of independently-produced and distributed folk-inflected and keyboard enhanced rock music.

I didn't start here, though—I was introduced to this music by a girl named Amy several years ago, a pale pretty little flapper-type with black-ringleted hair who'd brought me some records I'd never heard of. They were by Kasher's other band Cursive, before writing partner Ted Stevens had joined the critically-acclaimed group, as well as vinyl from his longtime friends and writing-group partners Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) and Simon Joyner.

Amy was a fellow resident at this downtown low income tenement owned by the Catholic church. She'd been through a lot of bad relationship shit in her life, and was holding the torch for her not very sensitive employer at the time, even though she knew better. She brought these emotionally troubling records over to my apartment one rainy Sunday afternoon when she was depressed, knowing that I had a turntable.

Kasher was brought up Catholic, and Album of the Year is filled with scenarios similar to these—depressed people in small apartments in bad parts of the city clinging to each other out of compulsion, for some kind of healing in shared misery.

"I think God is very much alive in people's hearts," Tim Kasher says. "Of course, I don't believe in God."

Kasher said that the heavily conceptual Album of the Year would probably be the last work of its type from him—He's trying to get away from concept albums.

"In no way are we inhibited by it or anything else," he says. "We just don't want anything to be predictable."

Kasher says his new material will attempt to avoid overt self-reflection.

"From here, I just want to go into fictionalized short stories," he says. "And in Cursive, Ted is working on some material about Vikings and continental drift. His ideas always start out obscure but always seem to end up having a lot of clarity."

Musically, Kasher may still seem unafraid to show his love for the Cure, but it's mostly in mood and not in direct compositional reference. (The Beatles would be the most obvious choice for a musical comparison to the Good Life's current work, and even that may have been filtered down through Costello or XTC or anyone else inspired by them.)

For example, "Night and Day" sounds nothing like Robert Smith's "Catch," but the song serves as a more specific, even more traumatic and transcendent version of the narrative, just from the story being told and the similarly haunted way that it's sung.

Kasher and I talked a lot about the line between confession and art-making, especially in regard to his most recent record with Cursive, The Ugly Organ.

"I don't really have a problem with fictionalizing things, because it's part of what makes things universal," Kasher says.  "But I don't ever want to lie. And that becomes like a really heated debate. Because when is your fictitious storytelling, based off your real thoughts and emotions, when is that when you're actually advocating things?

"I've gotten into a lot of discussions about me singing about a daughter that I have in Nevada (on the song "Sierra")," he continues, "so I tell people that it's about a kind of a feeling of love that's beyond my responsibilities. People are now used to me as someone who is non-fictional and honest.

"The reason I wrote that song on The Ugly Organ was that I had songs that were thematically based off of extensions of sexuality.  As from the title, the penis is the major extension of sexuality—but I also wanted to go into the reproductive aspects of that. Going into the idea of what is positive and beautiful about sexuality. Reflecting my own life, I guess it would say that it's agonizing.

"I think that maybe I could explain it by describing a conversation that I occasionally have with my brother-in-law, who is an aspiring songwriter with five children," Kasher continues. "He writes by himself, James Taylor kinds of stuff. And sometimes he'll tell me how much he thinks it's really amazing what I'm doing, and that sometimes how he wishes he could have done the same thing with his own life. He'll take care of his kids and then he'll play guitar in the basement till like four in the morning, and then wake up three hours later and take the kids to school. I always very honestly retort to him that he doesn't know what it's like, that he's married my sister, a wonderful person whom I love, and you have these incredible kids. And it's like—the grass is always greener.

"And it's something that I can't have."

Why can't you have that, Tim?

"It's something that doesn't come easy for me at all. And it's something that is very easy for him. I go back and forth—I think it would be wonderful to have kids, I just can't imagine.... Being a writer is such a horribly selfish lifestyle, I can't imagine faking anybody enough to take care of a child, to love a child when I just love myself so much."

Album of the Year spills out clever and charming and sometimes chilling details about old brown leather chairs being lugged from town to town, red wine and movie-obsessions, left behind copies of Harold and Maude, and self-inflicted cuts on arms and legs.

Through the gorgeously melodic torments of "Under a Honeymoon" ("I'm the latest cup of tea / to keep your cold hands company"), or the fumbling self-deprecation and devout Bukowski-appreciation of the keys-driven "Notes in His Pockets" ("We bought a six and decide to split / she had a downtown apartment"), or the guilt-sodden rage of the paradoxically poppy "Lovers Need Lawyers" ("I'm sick and tired of acting sincere"), all traditionally male-identified points of view, it also offers up "Inmates." With lead vocals sung by band-member Stefanie Drootin, Kasher's writing shows that he has learned a lot over the years in his collaboration and mutual encouragement society with Conor and Cursive members and Simon Joyner, and is able to present the protests and lamentations of the other POV in the doomed affair—something Lou Reed or Bob Dylan or Hefner hadn't ever really allowed in the space of their classic album sagas.

Writing this is not doing Kasher any favors.

"If it's a good review, I don't want to read it, because I don't want to be lauded over, and if it's a bad review, I don't want to read it because it kind of freaks me out," he admits. "I know that I've had some drunken nights where I'll freak out and get on-line and look for bad reviews, because I wanna read them! I want to read the bad reviews! And I think it's just unhealthy.

"I went through a lot of anxiety and had a break down last year when The Ugly Organ was getting good reviews, and was selling a lot of copies. I just couldn't deal with it very well, and it made me really upset and it made me want to stop doing it. But it's just this weird, self-destructive pattern I have that makes it very difficult to have relationships as well."

I told Kasher I had to admit that I've wondered how he still gets laid.

"I admit that I've been plagued now, and Omaha is like ... the girl I'm dating now, everybody has just told her, 'Oh my God, don't date him.'

Is it like that line on The Ugly Organ, 'There are things too dark to comprehend?'

"That song was written by Ted ... that line still makes me very upset. The way that I interpret it is that Ted's singing it to me, saying like, 'You know, you're trying way too hard to try and figure out things that you're never going to figure out, just stay alive, sleep on it [instead].'

"Ted is one of my closest friends," Kasher quickly adds. "But if there's a direction [my songwriting] is going, it's just becoming more queer, and more grossly sarcastic."
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