Art is hard; did you know that? Any artist reading this can understand the idea of separating art and life. If you write a song, how much of it should be from your real life? If it is about a breakup, do you use your ex’s real name? And at some point, do you lose yourself in your art like Yeats does in “The Circus Animals’ Desertion?”
As the lead singer of the band Cursive, Tim Kashner knows a bit about being an artist. Their last full-length, “Cursive’s Domestica,” was a concept album about a failed relationship. Now this begs the question: was this relationship Tim’s?
Well, one would assume so, looking at “Butcher the Song” on his latest album, The Ugly Organ. In the song a girlfriend says, “I keep getting snubbed… So rub it in, in your dumb lyrics… And each album I’ll get shit on a little more. Who’s Tim’s latest whore?”
Now, how do I know that his girlfriend is saying this? Well, because The Ugly Organ is a concept album about an artist dealing with being an artist. And this concept album is portrayed as a play, complete with stage directions in the liner notes.
The album opens with a street scene with organ playing and a man screaming about a song (“The Ugly Organist”) and is followed by “Some Red Handed Sleight of Hand” with the opening lines, “And now, we proudly present/ songs perverse and songs of lament./ A couple of hymns of confession,/ and songs that recognize our sick obsessions.”
Cursive is fully aware that they are artists. They are also aware of how this art affects them, their critics, friends, lovers, and their audience.
Well, what is this art that Kashner does? In the song “Art is Hard” he sings “the art of acting weak/ fall in love to fail/ to boost your CD sales/… regurgitate some sorry tale/ about a boy who sells his love affairs.”
So, is Kashner openly stating that truthfully he is a well-adjusted guy who in reality has great relationships with women? Well, I don’t know, I do not know, Tim. This is where the greatness of the album comes in: is this art truthful or is this art a messed-up fairytale?
The story is one of an artist: an organist. He admits that his music is full of pain, both his and his lover’s. And he admits that the pain can sell records. He is lonely, even (or especially) when he sleeps around with strange women (“The Recluse”).
The organist then admits in “Herald! Frankenstein” that he cannot control the monster (his music, his organ, and his life) that he created. His art has ruined his love life and his lover finds a better man (the second gentleman caller in “A Gentleman Caller”). The second gentleman then says, “The worst is over.”
The organist finally retreats and kills his organ (read organ as music or his penis; both work throughout the album). He then decides that he will live out the rest of his life in pain in “Staying Alive” since for him, too, “the worst is over.”
Now that you know the story you need to know the backdrop that is the music. Let me begin by saying that I really don’t like hard music. Sure, I enjoy melodic hard songs by the Deftones and Tool. But you notice that I said melodic. A lot of Cursive’s songs have the hardest “chords” I have heard in awhile.
I say “chords” because they sound so crunchy and unmusical. But these “chords” show the pain that is in this album. And underneath this crunch and pain we find the most important part of the music: Gretta Cohn.
Gretta is Cursive’s newest member and she brings melody and beauty to the otherwise harsh songs by playing the best cello you will find in indie rock today.
I am not saying that The Ugly Organ is unmelodic without the cello, because that is just not true. Every song that is heavy sooner or later gives way to an amazing harmony (“A Gentleman Caller”), or an extremely catchy hook (“Art is Hard”). And both “Driftwood: A Fairy Tale” and the 10-minute “Staying Alive” are all melody and beauty with no harsh aftertaste.
Which basically sums up The Ugly Organ: pain always gives way to a sweet chorus of voices singing “the worst is over.