Saddle Creek Records was a revelation to many in the late ’90s and early 2000s. Oddball Omaha locals like The Faint, Cursive, and Bright Eyes all spread across the country after releasing records on the label. The third-ever release on Saddle Creek (back when it was still called Lumberjack Records), Slowdown Virginia’s Dead Space was a major influence on the bands that would later form the label’s main stable. Once Slowdown Virginia broke apart and reformed as Cursive, fans would still clamor for that early “emo” sound.
Dead Space was also the first hint at frontman Tim Kasher’s distinctive songwriting and signature yelp. Kasher had a fragmented yet direct lyrical style that, as Cursive began writing songs together around 1995, would move into an almost uncomfortably personal realm. On Cursive’s early records, especially 2000’s Domestica, it’s hard to tell if the characters in the songs are just characters or if the lines are lifted straight from Kasher’s journal. All good songwriters write from the heart; that’s why people obsess over them. But there was and remains something particularly captivating about Kasher’s slash-and-burn, bloodletting lyrics, like craning your neck at a car wreck.
While touring Domestica, Kasher and the band exhausted themselves — in 2002, Kasher actually suffered a collapsed lung. They canceled the rest of their tour and started writing again. Kasher, drummer Clint Schnase, bassist Matt Maginn, guitarist Ted Stevens, and new cellist Gretta Cohn began developing a new album concept born out of the band’s exhaustion from spending night after night pouring themselves out to bloodthirsty audiences. Kasher especially felt pressure to keep loving and losing just to have more material to draw upon. Those songs would become Cursive’s most ambitious and creative album, The Ugly Organ. Now, 11 years later, Ugly Organ is getting a fully remastered reissue from Saddle Creek complete with B-sides and other tracks from the album’s sessions.
Ugly Organ is a three-act pseudo-melodrama that follows its main character, the Ugly Organist, through trials and tribulations in love and life. Stage directions even preface each song’s lyrics in the liner notes. Like Tom Waits’ stage persona, the Ugly Organist is his creator; Kasher can play him off as a separate entity, but in the end, you know that 95% of it is him. Unlike Waits, however, Kasher’s Ugly Organist isn’t a fantastical carnival madman, though the album does open with the calliope and state fair darkness of “The Ugly Organist”, the character’s theme song. Through crackling distortion, Kasher barks an introduction: “Now we proudly present songs perverse, and songs of lament, a couple hymns of confession. Songs to recognize my sick obsession. So, sing along!” The Organist is a disillusioned musician figuring out how to lay himself bare for screaming fans night after night, album after album.
On the second track, “Some Red-Handed Sleight of Hand”, Kasher expounds his fear of martyring himself to art derived from lost love, though really all his wounds are his own fault. “I’ve been making money off my indifference,” he screams, later adding, “This is my body, this is the blood I found on my hands/ After I wrote this album/ Play it off as stigmata for crossover fans.” Then, without even a breath, the band explodes into “Art Is Hard”. Kasher continues the same sentiment, bellowing, “Your self-inflicted pain is getting too routine/ The crowds are catchin’ on to your self-inflicted song/ Well, here we go again, the art of acting weak/ Fall in love to fail to boost your CD sales.”
Few musicians have voiced the conflict between art and life in such aggressive detail. Friend and fellow Saddle Creeker Conor Oberst has confronted it with Bright Eyes on more than one occasion, but never with the bravado that Cursive pull off here. As Chris Pace said in his 2003 review of Ugly Organ, “Kasher’s trick is that the more he hates himself, the more we love him — and you get the feeling that while the performer in him loves the adulation, the human being inside hates us for it.”
Ugly Organ‘s first act ends with “The Recluse”, which finds the Ugly Organist “awake, alone” in the bed of a woman he hardly knows. While the previous tracks are all pummeling guitars, drums, and Gretta Cohn’s amazing cello, “The Recluse” is a more contemplative tune: Cohn’s cello lazily rises and falls behind Kasher and Stevens’ arpeggiated guitars. Kasher’s vocals take on more of a hushed tone, as if he’s reporting from the bedroom, scared to wake up his companion, or as if you’re reading his thoughts the instant they appear. It’s the kind of situation the Ugly Organist expresses contempt for in previous songs, yet he finds himself there once more.
Blurring the line between character and author even more, Cursive deliver “Butcher the Song”, a demented nightmare of timpani and mournful cello told from the view of the Ugly Organist and his past lover. “So rub it in in your dumb lyrics/ Yeah that’s the time and place to wring out your bullshit/ And each album I get shit on a little more/ Who’s Tim’s latest whore?” Kasher sings. “A Gentleman Caller” is by far the most intense and chaotic track on the album, perfectly scoring the drunken swirl of a closing time hookup. It ends with a calming cello pulse as Kasher sings, “In the morning, on a sober dawn of Sunday, you’re not sure what you have done.” What’s more, he gives hope for the Ugly Organist with a chant of “the worst is over.”
The third act pulls the camera back and observes the situation in a more normal light; the meta references mostly stop, but the story goes on. “Sierra”, which features Kasher’s most passionate vocals on the album, is about the Ugly Organist trying to mend things with an old flame. “Staying Alive” closes out the album with a rolling optimism as the band falls away into static, rounding out a complete 180 from the record’s start.
The bonus tracks on the reissue include the powerful six-minute “Sinner’s Serenade”, which could easily have fit into the record alongside “A Gentleman Caller”. Also included are the band’s contributions to the 8 Teeth to Eat You split EP with Japanese rockers Eastern Youth, including one of Cursive’s strongest songs, and one that features Cohn’s best work with the band: “Excerpts from Various Notes Strewn Around the Bedroom of April Connolly Feb 24, 1997”. It’s one of the more pretentious titles out there, but the anger in Kasher’s vocals combined with the band’s relentless hammering make it a venomous, frothing delight.
Ugly Organ was a watershed moment in my musical life. I was 18, about to graduate high school, and reeling from a breakup. Sure, bands had written breakup records before, Domestica among them, but never had a band presented this message in quite this way — and Cursive still haven’t been matched. After Ugly Organ, they went on to expand musically with Happy Hollow, mature with Mama, I’m Swollen, and then fundamentally change the concept album with I Am Gemini. But that sound of heartbreak and loss and meta-drama was mostly abandoned. Ugly Organ forced the band to find new barriers to break and new worlds to explore as Kasher made a conscious effort to move past his overt self-referencing. The album is a signpost, an X emblazoned on a tree marking where Cursive had been and where they ended up going.
Essential Tracks: “Art Is Hard”, “A Gentleman Caller”, and “Excerpts from Various Notes Strewn Around the Bedroom of April Connolly Feb 24, 1997”