‘The Ugly Organ’: Digging into Cursive’s post-modern masterpiece

Prior to Saddle Creek Records’ 51st release, Cursive’s 2003 masterpiece The Ugly Organ, the Omaha label released some good, and even great, records.

Cursive’s turbulent Domestica predates The Ugly Organ. The label’s third release was the influential Dead Space by Slowdown Virginia, on which you can hear Cursive frontman Tim Kasher hone his howl. There were a few really good Lullaby for the Working Class records, Bright Eyes’ breakout Lifted or The Story is in the Soil, Keep Your Ear to the Ground (which may also qualify for masterpiece status were it not forever in the shadow of 2005’s I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning). Saddle Creek released two LPs by Kasher’s other band, The Good Life, as well as the first two records by The Faint, the first Desaparecidos full-length and Rilo Kiley’s The Execution of All Things.

By 2003, Saddle Creek was faithfully chugging away through its most productive and influential run to date. And despite that, The Ugly Organ stands out as the perhaps best from that era (at least until I’m Wide Awake It’s Morning, but that’s for another conversation).

On Nov. 24, Saddle Creek will reissue The Ugly Organ double LP remastered. With it, a handful of songs released across various singles and splits written during The Ugly Organ sessions, a handful of rare photos, expanded artwork and an intro by The AV Club’s Kyle Ryan. Pre-order the piece of Nebraska music history here.

The album succeeds on the atmosphere it builds, driven both by production — shattering glass, eerie carnival music, heavy breathing — and Greta Cohn’s haunting cello parts, which often dip into the realm of the truly terrifying. Kasher’s melodies are simple and catchy, almost familiarly so, but, distorted by his delivery and the chaotic arrangements that surround them, they become like nursery rhymes from the sixth circle of Hell.

Speaking of arrangements, Domestica and The Ugly Organ found Cursive often classed as an emo band. The Blender review of the album called it a “groundbreaking stab at emo self-analysis.” The similarities are indeed there, but no matter what your personal definition of emo might be, very few emo bands, whether descended from pop punk or hardcore, have ever tried a hand at something so expansive, so orchestral. The Ugly Organ deftly swings between fragilely soft and maddeningly explosive.

As Rob Mitchum noted in his Pitchfork review of the album, The Ugly Organ is impressively post-modern with a keen sense of the culture that birthed it. Kasher’s lyrics react to their history and to themselves. Recursive melodies pop up in motifs throughout the record. It’s a hyper-intentional collection of songs without being an obvious concept album (like Domestica or a handful of other Kasher works in the years that followed).

So the album thrives for a healthy attention to many details. But what sets it apart from, say, Desaparecidos’ Read Music / Speak Spanish, is its deft organization, borrowed by nearly every narrative medium for centuries: the three-act structure.

In a three-act structure, viewers are introduced to a protagonist in the first act, which ends with a point of incident — an occurrence that demands action. That action will propel the second act forward where the protagonist tries to solve that problem (and usually fails) and grows in the process. The third act may not give consumers a conclusion, but it generally provides resolution, something to hold onto.

There’s no script to follow and no hard evidence that Kasher and crew set out to make an album that follows the same model as Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, The Godfather, and Toy Story. The purpose of pop music necessitates that emphasis must be first on the actual music, so the main character arc is more intrinsic than explicit, but it’s there.

The sheer enterprise of The Ugly Organ is laudable. The fact that Cursive pulls it off with such ferocity, dexterity and subtlety pushes the album beyond “nice try” or “good post-rock record.” The Ugly Organ and its repurposing of an old form is a true exploration of the pop-album formula.

To celebrate the reissue, I’ll break the album down to explore exactly how it ticks.

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Every director (author, musician, painter) gives the audience a how-to guide, a brief directional signpost, within the piece’s framework. Kasher, a student of film, is no exception. “The Ugly Organist,” invites us into an amusement park soundscape with laughing children and rumbling roller coasters. After a grotesque organ slide, a distorted, barely discernible voice shouts over a tinny speaker, promising “songs perverse, songs of lament.”

This isn’t just an album, it’s a freakshow featuring a man with a disfigured heart, an ugly organ, characterized more by Cohn’s twisting cello than any actual organ of instrumental variety.

The first act, spanning tracks two, three and four, introduces us to our main character, The Ugly Organist. He’s a musician and, as with The Good Life’s Black Out and Album of the Year, it gets tricky trying to tell him apart from Kasher. By the time we meet him, he’s beaten down from one or several attempts to reconcile his personal life and his overtly personal artistic output.

On “Some Red-Handed Sleight of Hand,” The Ugly Organist laments that “there’s no use to keep a secret, everything I hide ends up in lyrics,” before addressing the listener: “So read on, accuse me when you’re done if it sounds like I did you wrong.”

The rollickingly dark guitar and cello duo recall a ship tossed in a roaring sea, a direct counter to Kasher’s deadpan delivery.

The Ugly Organist knows we’re listening and he recognizes his medium, which includes its limitations, a hallmark of postmodernism. We’re only hearing his side of things. Without an option for counterbalance, we have no choice but to buy-in to art’s inherent sleight of hand.

On “Art is Hard,” he’s tired of selling his love affairs to boost CD sales. It’s an unfulfilling cycle of the industry and a poignant comment on pop music’s enduring obsession with romantic relationships. There’s also some fantastic tongue-in-cheek structural analysis at play here: “Oh a second verse? Color me fatigued.”

Act I ends in action. In “The Recluse,” The Ugly Organist awakes on a hungover morning in The Recluse’s bed, though she’s nowhere to be found. The scene is an example of exactly what he loathes on “Art is Hard.” Here’s the beginning of another soon-to-turn-blood-sucking relationship.

The grooving rhythm section of “The Recluse” is the most pleasing, even danceable on the record. The absence of the thunderous, piecemeal guitar parts we’ve heard up to this point makes the track a true earworm pop song. This is the song The Ugly Organist wrote about the experience he details in the song, this is the song he hates to have to write.

The act closes with the main character at his lowest point, in the throes of hungover self-hatred. What is he going to do about it?  Will The Ugly Organist dig himself out of this pit of debasement?

* * *

At 47 seconds, “Herald! Frankenstein” heralds the second act with arid Sergio Leone-esque instrumentation, before a whispered voice comes in over crashing distorted guitars: “I can’t stop the monster I’ve created.”

Act II finds our sad hero taking action and playing out the consequences of those actions.

Then, “Butcher the Song” rides in on doom-bearing timpani and cello. The Ugly Organist and a lover speak, airing grievances. “So rub it in, in your dumb lyrics … And each album, I’ll get shit on a little more.”

Kasher, voicing his audience, addresses himself on this track, further muddying the line between autobiography and fiction, album and reality. “Who’s Tim’s latest whore?” he has album-buyers eagerly wondering, a familiar, if perplexing trick of authorial insertion used by Kurt Vonnegut in Breakfast of Champions.

With passing comment and a similar chord progression, the song harkens back to “Some Red-Handed Sleight of Hand,” tearing away the curtain, so to speak. Yes, this is a work of art and supposed fiction, but there’s also a real person behind it, informing it, directing it.

The Ugly Organist tries to resolve once-and-for-all, his heart or his profession. In a torrent of organ-lightning and cello-thunder, The Butcher horrifically removes the ugly organ from The Ugly Organist. The track closes with the intro to the next track, spoken words: “And I am what is left: a puppet!”

The next two tracks follow The Ugly Organist through two more affairs in the wake of his decision.

“Driftwood: A Fairy Tale” is a more personal pursuit. The Ugly Organist meets The Fairy and he makes an effort to court her, like he would have at the beginning of Act I. But without a heart, she quickly sees that “it’s an empty love to fill the void.”

The track closes with thirty seconds of sparse out-of-tune piano that sounds like a reference to the same trick on Bright Eyes’ Lifted album.

On “A Gentleman Caller,” The Ugly Organist ditches any idea of pursuing love, he’s just looking for sex with a woman who has been cheated on. The chaotic, scrabbled guitar recalls an intense and discordant drunken affair.

And then the storm breaks. The cold morning shines its light on regret. “The worst is over,” supposedly, but The Ugly Organist feels guilt over sweeping up another in his emotionless vortex. The track ends with sonorous, moving cello solo.

“Harold Weathervein” opens with the cello slowly ramping up the intensity while something breathes heavily. The Greek chorus, the ancient, reliable tool for verbal exposition, asks The Ugly Organist a simple question through a moody, gusty instrumental piece: “Weatherman, do you feel?”

The Ugly Organist is slowly coming to terms with the failure of the choice he made on “The Butcher.” The final minute of the track is psychological bits of could-have-been songs, memories and wishes flooding back in pieces.

And those memories haunt on “Bloody Murderer.” The Ugly Organist remembers leaving a past lover. She haunts him now in a cacophonous track. It’s a pivotal moment for The Ugly Organist, or perhaps, the last in a pile of pivotal moments.

“Bloody Murderer” closes the second act. Heartless or no, the “the ghost in (his) bed” proves point-blank on the industrial-drum-driven track that callousness won’t cure him of his past.

* * *

The third act opens with The Ugly Organist reflecting on a daughter he could have had — “Sierra” — and while there’s the eerie feeling of The Ugly Organist standing in a dark doorway and watching the mother and daughter from across the street, there’s an important, if fleeting and misguided, realization for our character: “I’m ready to settle down now, to get that man out of my bed. I want my daughter back now.”

The track climaxes with an emotional screaming of Sierra’s name before The Ugly Organist comes to terms with a certain futility: he and his daughter could have “been so … oh nevermind.” And while the choral track has its musically triumphant moments, it brings The Ugly Organist to his knees in the end.

And it’s only from the total breakdown of his psyche that The Ugly Organist can begin to rebuild.

It’s a simple realization on “Staying Alive”: “I’ve decided tonight I’m staying alive.” But the actual significance of this moment is belied by the track’s ambition, as Kasher’s voice, echoed and hesitant at the outset grows stronger through the song.

At 10 minutes, the track builds slowly, but eagerly. It’s the only one on the album that hates neither The Ugly Organist nor the listener. For once, Kasher’s howl sounds less like he’s falling and more like he’s getting back up.

The album ends with a genuine, angelic choir arrangement revisiting two motifs from “Gentleman Caller”: the “doo do”s and “the worst is over,” before fading into peaceful ambience, no grating cello or huge distorted power chords to be found.

Like most good endings, there is more than one way to read this, but in either The Ugly Organist is on his way to finding peace. Something has ended. The ethereal closing minute suggests something out-of-this-world, The Ugly Organist’s departed spirit. Or maybe he’s abandoned the pursuit of intensely personal art, ascending to a more outward-looking plane of creation. The latter seems more likely, given that Kasher’s body of work following The Ugly Organ became much less obviously autobiographical.

If there’s a failure in Act III, it’s that lyrically, the final two tracks ditch the meta-commentary for a more straightforward one-two punch of defeated climax and beaten-but-alive resolution. Narratively, though, it’s an effective closer. It’s meaningful without being overwrought. It closes a dark album without succumbing to nihilism or turning around to eat its own tail.

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Cursive strikes out on tour with a cellist early next year to celebrate The Ugly Organ’s reissue. It’s a safe bet they’ll play the album in its entirety on every stop, so go see them if you never had the chance ten years ago. They play The Waiting Room in Omaha on Mar. 21. Buy tickets here. Find the rest of the dates here.