Tim Kasher (frontman for Cursive) and Conor Oberst (leader of Bright Eyes) are the twin turbines behind the Saddle Creek record label's current wave of success. Oberst, the founder of the label, heads up Bright Eyes (lo-fi orchestral pop, his primary gig) and Los Desaparecidos (politically minded indie rock, a side gig), while Kasher keeps pace with his own dual-headed monster, Cursive (a postmodernist take on old school metal, his main band) and The Good Life (a postmodernist take on early 80s postpunk, his secondary creative outlet). Between them, these two songwriters have been responsible for seven albums or EPs distributed between their four bands over the past year, or approximately half of the label's output.
So naturally, Kasher's latest record with Cursive, "The Ugly Organ", (Cursive's first full-length since 2000, although the intervening years have seen two EPs from them along with two full-lengths from the Good Life) is much anticipated among Saddle Creek aficionados. Oberst will always be the heart and soul of Saddle Creekin addition to being the founder, he works on almost all of the albums that come out on the label (and most Saddle Creek bands have at least one member that show up on his), and Bright Eye's sound sets the tone for many bands on the labelbut based on the sophisticated lyrics and taut songwriting found on "The Ugly Organ", Kasher may well be the one who brings widespread recognition to Saddle Creek.
The title "The Ugly Organ" refers metaphorically to everything from Kasher's voice, his hands, his penis, and generally his talents as a songwriter, musician, and seducer, all of which fuel an alternate personality that lives for attention and feeds on misery. "The Ugly Organ" is framed as a concept album, a musical play with stage directions appearing before and after each set of song lyrics in the album's liner notes. Kasher even employs the tried and true device (used to good effect by Tom Waits) of opening the album with a carnival barker shouting a distorted intro under the woozy bombast of a calliope before launching into the painfully masochistic "Some Red Handed Sleight of Hand", where Kasher tells the audience that the scars he displays in his lyrics, wounds supposedly suffered by a martyr in the cause of love, are actually self-inflicted:
I've been making money off my indifference
We all pass the hat around
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
Some red handed sleight of hand
Kasher barely pauses before launching into the second track, "Art is Hard", which continues the lyrical and musical themes introduced in "Sleight of Hand":
Cut it outyour self-inflicted pain
Is getting too routine
The crowds are catching on
To the self-inflicted song
Rarely has an artist been so brutally honest about the pitfalls of stardom without sounding like a whiny Eddie Vedder-ish jerk who has completely lost touch with his fan base. Kasher's trick is that the more he hates himself, the more we love himand you get the feeling that while the performer in him loves the adulation, the human being inside hates us for it.
Lyrically, the album explores the relationship between the performer and the man, the star onstage and the insecure, lonely person off, including tales of waking up in a stranger's room after a one night stand ("The Recluse"), a fantasy about killing the performing side of himself ("Butcher the Song"), a comparison between the story of Pinocchio and the hollow, inhuman creature that he has become ("Driftwood: A Fairy Tale"), and a man who is so obsessive about a past relationship that he is preventing his former lover from moving on with her life ("Bloody Murderer"). A single short track, "Herald! Frankenstein", succinctly sums up the main theme of the record: "I can't stop the monster I've created". The album ends on a fairly positive note, however, with "Sierra", Kasher's wish for a renewed relationship with his estranged daughter, and "Staying Alive", a dreamy ten minute track featuring a ghostly choir repeating the same hopeful incantation: "The worst is over".
Musically, the record runs from quiet, introspective string-laden pieces ("The Recluse", "Driftwood") to sweeping expanses of orchestral rock ("Sierra", "Staying Alive"), but the favored style is a ferocious indie rock tempest that combines precision guitar attacks reminiscent of early speed metal with an omnipresent cello that finally proves that a traditional string instument can be just as bombastic as a Fender when wielded properly. All of this is topped off with Kasher's wounded howl, which is what Robert Smith might have sounded like if had ever gotten really angry and if he wasn't so damn British. The production is clean to the point of being clinical, but it doesn't take away from the raw emotional content of the musiclike diamonds, the fact that they are perfectly crafted and polished gems doesn't take away from their innate hardness.
Kasher takes us through his destructive relationships, his self-loathing as a reluctant star, and his loneliness, but by the end, he's ready to move on to something better. Let's just hope for the sake of the band that his pain, the driving force behind this record and Kasher's more subdued work with The Good Life, isn't as integral to his creative process as he makes it out to be. It would be a shame if "The Ugly Organ" turned out to be the last great offering from an artist who has now fully come into his own and is poised to make the jump to the next level.