The Ugly Organ by Cursive (Review)

Part of me is thrilled to hear an album this brilliantly bitter.
The Ugly Organ, Cursive

Despite having grown up in Omaha, and now living only 45 minutes from the city, I never got caught up in the Saddle Creek explosion that seemed to sweep through the region a year or two ago. Everywhere you looked, Bright Eyes seemed to be on everyone’s lips, The Faint were touring with No Doubt and getting plenty of press on their own, and Omaha was being tagged as the new Seattle.

Of all of the big Saddle Creek acts (if any of them could be considered “big” in the normal industry sense), the one that always seemed just below my radar was Cursive. Heck, I was more familiar with Tim Kasher’s “side-project,” The Good Life (and, just to further cash in on my 15 minutes, part of that is because my old band opened for them once). I knew plenty of people who were huge Cursive fans, who knew the band, grew up with them, etc… but I just never got into them much. (I suspect seeing a disastrous live performance a few years ago had something to do with that.)

However, I finally got around to listening to The Ugly Organ last week, after downloading it from the iTunes Music Store (aka “Music Fan Crack”), and I’ve been in awe ever since. It doesn’t surprise me at all that the band will be touring with The Cure in August — this is just the sort of agonized, scathingly introspective yet eminently listenable and well-crafted pop that Robert Smith once excelled at. Heck, some songs (“The Recluse”) might actually be Cure singles in disguise.

While not really a “concept album” per se, the themes — failed relationships, self-loathing, alienation, empty sex — are so pervasive that it might as well be one. And I haven’t heard a song that chronicles the delicate and dangerous symmetry between an artist’s life and their art as well since the aptly-titled “Art Is Hard”:

Cut it out
Your self-inflicted pain is getting too routine
The crowds are catching on
To the self-inflicted song
Well, here we go again
The art of acting weak
Fall in love to fail
To boost your CD sales

At times, the album just becomes very uncomfortable to listen to. One wonders just what demons drive Kasher to pen (and record) some of these lyrics and if he’s not just a bit masochistic for doing so. Or, if these songs aren’t autobiographical, how Kasher can sound so much like a man truly at the end of his rope, so completely and utterly hopeless. Hearing Kasher scream “And now I wonder how I was made” at the end of the Pinocchio-themed “Driftwood: A Fairy Tale” always gives me shivers, if only because of Kasher’s desperate conviction. And I also feel almost voyeuristic, as if I’ve accidentally stumbled across someone’s emotional self-flaying.

Part of me is thrilled to hear an album this brilliantly bitter. The intensity with which the band attacks each and every song — “Some Red Handed Sleight Of Hand” could literally tear the paint off walls — is a pure rush, and the emotional intensity lends it far more substance than most of the “emo” crowd into which Cursive is often lumped. However, such honesty and passion also makes for a draining, and sometimes disturbing listen.

Funny how that paradox works. Part of me can’t wait to hear what Kasher comes up with next, and hopes it’s just as intense and searing as this album. But another part feels uncomfortable that Kasher seemingly puts himself through so much for his art — or at least goes through the motions with such intensity — and hopes that whatever demons might inspire such performances have long since been exorcised.

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