Saddle Creek | The Good Life | Reviews


Novena on a Nocturn

Author: George Zahora
11/10/2000 | | | Album Review
Before I ever listened to the Good Life, I was drawn in by the disc's cover art. As night swirls darkly in the background, a childlike figure -- presumably the Virgin Mary, given the album's title -- sits on the end of a glowing crescent moon, wrapped in (literally) a blanket of stars. A single tear drips from her closed eyes. Mind you, this description doesn't do the art justice -- indeed, it makes it sound rather precious. And perhaps, to others, it might be -- but this simple piece by artist Geraldine Vo reached out and grabbed me. It creates a palpable sense of cold and loneliness, tempered by the simple comforting relief that only a soft, warm blanket can bring.

Cursive's Tim Kasher is no stranger to cold and loneliness, as anyone who's heard the last Cursive album can attest. The songs on Novena on a Nocturn address similar concepts -- pain, disappointment, failure -- but the music is very different. These are the songs Kasher wrote "on the side" over the course of more than a decade, songs that didn't fit the Cursive formula. They're gentler, quieter and more intricately orchestrated.

Notice that I didn't say "more personal". I don't think Kasher is capable of impersonal lyrics. Every song reflects his anguish, his alienation and his inability to connect with others. If a song ends on a bittersweet note, we're actually hearing Kasher at his most upbeat. This is one tortured guy. On paper, some of his lyrics come across as pompous and clumsy; how could you sing lines like "It's like stabbing an icicle straight through your chest" or "I'll sleep alone until the longing burrows a hole straight through my sternum to make its home" with a straight face? But like so many writers and poets, Kasher knows the twists and turns of his words better than any reader, and from his mouth the lyrics ring true.

The music completes the package. Quite unlike Cursive's all-out assault, Kasher's rotating cadre of collaborators provides a modest but enveloping mixture of piano, guitar, strings and drumming. It's carefully and lovingly orchestrated, but never threatens to swell beyond the intimate confines Kasher has created. The percussion often sounds looped and/or processed, adding an additional sense of otherworldliness to the music. But what's most surprising here is that the moody pop arrangements work with Kasher's full, falsetto-ish voice, revealing a modest vocal similarity to the Cure's Robert Smith -- another guy known for singing about loneliness and isolation. It's abundantly obvious in a few places, but none more persuasively -- and gorgeously -- than on "The Moon Red Handed". Really, this song alone justifies owning the album, though "What We Fall For When We're Already Down", the faintly Michael Pennish "Your Birthday Present" and the haunting "Waiting on Wild Horses" offer further riches. In this context even the occasional strained and off-key vocal performance, typically an emo "signature", isn't objectionable -- and it doesn't happen very often anyway.

Seriously, check this record out. It will surprise you. It will engross you. And if you're remotely susceptible to the lure of the cover art, it will envelop you.