It’s been 20 years and no one’s written a more vicious review of The Ugly Organ than Tim Kasher himself. The Cursive frontman repeatedly likens his creative process to taking a shit; at other points, it’s more like masturbation. Either way, on “Butcher The Song” the end result is described as a “horrible mess.” This is right before Kasher brings The Ugly Organ to its brutal and bloody climax — yelling “GET OUT THE BUTCHER’S KNIFE!” three times, each one more desperate than the last. The Ugly Organ isn’t exactly dealing in subtle metaphor, but this is one instance where Kasher leaves things open to interpretation. Is he asking for castration? A lobotomy? Both? Or are those basically the same thing for someone who thinks with his dick?
What happened instead was the best possible outcome for Cursive and the worst for Kasher, or maybe vice versa. Released 20 years ago this Saturday, The Ugly Organ still stands as Cursive’s most popular and critically acclaimed album, one that Kasher has spent the past two decades trying to both live up to and live down. In the time since, reappraisal of The Ugly Organ has mostly centered around how much any emotionally healthy human being should publicly admit to enjoying it. Or, whether liking this album is akin to relating to it and tantamount to endorsing its — problematic feels too easy, let’s just say deeply cynical — worldview on art, religion and especially relationships.
The narrator of The Ugly Organ — which is assumed to be Kasher himself, as he references his own name and band throughout — is shockingly petty and self-obsessed, incapable of fully connecting with another human being, finding no relief in the privilege of having a respected and popular rock band to air out his grievances. Even amidst the canon of ethically dubious emo classics — “Misery Business,” “Tiny Vessels,” “Wow, I Can Get Sexual Too,” “Lover I Don’t Have to Love,” the entirety of Pinkerton — redemption, illicit joy or even vicarious thrill is nowhere to be found. People are indeed getting laid on The Ugly Organ, but did anyone see the mutually assured destruction of “The Recluse” or “A Gentleman Caller” as aspirational? This was all true from the very day The Ugly Organ dropped, so it’s worth taking a step back and figuring out how a record that frames its author and maybe even its audience in the most unflattering light possible became so popular in the first place.
For one thing, Cursive fans were already well prepared for an album like The Ugly Organ based on the project’s previous eight years. After their spirited punk project Commander Venus fizzled out, Kasher and Conor Oberst were complements and counterbalances in defining Saddle Creek’s sound and mythos, their raw early work culminating in the release of Fevers And Mirrors and Domestica within one month of each other in 2000. But whereas the former announced a generational voice with a ragtag, orchestral rendering of teen angst, Domestica was a concept album of caustic post-hardcore inspired by Kasher’s divorce. Depending on your mood, Domestica remains either a work of unmatched cathartic power or virtually unlistenable.
Harrowing as Domestica is, I have to imagine Cursive made it with the intention of connecting with an audience and felt vindicated by its success. But if we’re to take “Art Is Hard” at face value — and The Ugly Organ asks for nothing less — Kasher assessed what made Domestica a hit relative to its predecessors and decided it probably wasn’t the strident hooks or impassioned performances. Rather, it was a willingness to evade the typical defense mechanisms of allegory or authorial distance to expose his flaws and neuroses in the most direct way possible, a sacrifice for the sake of art; not for nothing is the most popular song called “The Martyr.” “If at first you don’t succeed, you gotta recreate your misery,” he snarls on “Art Is Hard,” and the response to Domestica could be interpreted as a mandate for a repeat performance as well as a trap, starting a feedback loop where Kasher channels his anguish into music that cultivates an audience who desires more of the same.
This is especially true as The Ugly Organ was the first Cursive album that faced expectations from a truly national audience, as Saddle Creek had spent the previous three years releasing nothing but heat: Lifted, The Execution Of All Things, Read Music / Speak Spanish, Danse Macabre, Now, It’s Overhead — even Kasher’s side project the Good Life got in on the action with the gothic feel-bad opus Black Out. Yet, while Conor Oberst and Jenny Lewis were photogenic and charismatic tell-all types who drank and drugged and debauched within the context of accessible folk-pop, Kasher was on the verge of 30, famous for making a scabrous post-hardcore album about his own divorce. “I’m writing songs to entertain/ But these people, they just want pain,” he carped on “Butcher The Song,” and, as one of “these people,” I’ll reserve the right to take a dialectical approach to this thought: Kasher is writing songs to entertain and his listeners want pain. With Cursive, it’s nigh impossible to get one without the other.
Kasher already offered up his marriage in effigy on Domestica, and the artistic process on “Sink To The Beat.” So, as the saying goes, when there’s nothing left to burn, you have to set yourself on fire. The Ugly Organ goes scorched earth on the entire social construct that allows Cursive to exist as a popular act. Filled with skronking keys and blaring horns, The Ugly Organ retrofits the sentiment of Joy Divison’s “Atrocity Exhibition” to sound like an actual circus freak act — this is the way, step inside, grab your peanuts. And it is still meant as a form of entertainment. The music itself is inventive and hooky — “Art Is Hard” veers from vise-tight emo to mock-ska with slippery, snarky trombones. “Some Red Handed Sleight Of Hand” finds an unexpected nexus between Elephant 6 and Dischord. The dynamics in “Butcher The Song” are as frightening as any Slint song, while also exponentially more melodic. While more tuneful than in the past, Kasher’s vocals and guitars match his words — a collection of whispers, whines, blunt chords, flatted fifths, chromatic scale runs and harmonic shrieks. Even the frilly twinkles of “The Recluse,” one of the few conventionally pretty moments, are meant to recreate a harsh sunlight through the curtains on a hung-over morning.
The Ugly Organ wasn’t the first emo album to feature cello, but none prior considered it to be a primary instrument. Greta Cohn’s unconventional playing provided hooks whenever Kasher got stingy — shredding through speed metal riffs on “Some Red Handed Sleight Of Hand,” prodding the sudden movements of “Bloody Murderer,” respectively adding migraine-induced sighs and nauseous countermelodies to “The Recluse” and “Butcher The Song.” It’s the only Cursive record on which Cohn played and, not coincidentally, the band’s most distinctive – 2018’s Vitriola was considered a return to form almost solely based on the return of a cellist.
But the previous two paragraphs don’t explain why people got the cover art tattooed on their body, or why they might regret it 20 years later. Kasher’s lyrics incorporate common fantastical imagery — the fly in the spider’s web, Pinocchio, Frankenstein, The Phantom of the Opera — simple devices meant to underline the immaturity of the narrator. “Driftwood: A Fairy Tale” could be read as a Taking Back Sunday-style, accusatory broadside against a woman who supposedly takes advantage of a poor boy who just wanted to be loved. Or, it could be a parody of Long Island emo. “He would buy her things and kiss her hair to show he was for real,” Kasher laments. But the woman knows better and understands the true intentions: “It’s an empty love to fill the void.” Or, the liar here believes that acting like some kind of idealized “good boyfriend” makes him “real,” when all of these acts are still based on self — he’s more in love with the idea of being the “good boyfriend” than the actual woman.
Earlier on “The Recluse,” we find him “awake, alone in a woman’s room I hardly know” as Kasher reckons with the aftermath of a one-night stand. He wonders, “Christ, I’m not that desperate?” before admitting, “Oh no, oh god, I am.” And he can’t seem to grasp that these things happen; some people, good people, who write poetry and whatnot, get laid and get on with it. “A Gentleman Caller” beats “Marvins Room” to the punch by eight or so years in detailing a drunk dialer’s last-ditch attempt to convince a woman that he’s more worthy of her time than her chump boyfriend. But he’s not saying you can do better. He’s saying you can’t really do much worse. Minutes after “The Recluse,” he’s all but given up on the idea of sex as something other than a blunt instrument and rationalizes by offering disillusionment as some kind of perverse, admirable truth — “I’m not looking for a lover, all these lovers are liars. I would never lie to you.”
This kind of last-ditch pleading becomes nearly impossible to bear on the penultimate “Sierra,” which you can only hope isn’t autobiographical. Kasher thinks of a woman and the likely normalcy of her life after leaving him — jogging in the morning, a steady job, a steady man. But there’s also a kid involved. The guy in “Bloody Murderer” and “A Gentleman Caller” and “The Recluse” might actually be responsible for another human being. Toward the end, Kasher begs, “I want my daughter back now,” and he sounds completely honest about that desire. He’s also honest about the fact that he doesn’t deserve it — others have moved on, he hasn’t.
And while “Staying Alive” is perhaps supposed to be the “epic closer,” both the reverberating post-rock ambiance and group chorale provide fake uplift. Kasher simply thrashes around a torture chamber of his own head for 10 minutes, voices caroming back and forth and rendering the title as some kind of perverse threat to someone who spends the bulk of his time creating and assessing the wreckage he causes. The lyrical motif of “the worst is over,” previously heard on “A Gentleman Caller,” is repeated ad nauseam; the point it makes is that while the worst may be over, things aren’t necessarily going to get better.
If there were any doubts about whether Kasher intended The Ugly Organ as theater or simply therapy, the lyrics sheet was presented as a libretto complete with a cast of characters and stage directions. Nonetheless, it tends to get swept up in the same discourse that ensnares, say, the work of Martin Scorsese — that their popularity stems from a type of male wish fulfillment, focusing on the noxious morality of its narrator rather than the actual moral of the story itself; in no instance is there a happy ending. If there is indeed a question of how The Ugly Organ managed to resonate with such a broad audience, you might as well ask why that happens with any work of art that doesn’t directly reflect the listener’s experience or reaffirm their desired virtues.
In early 2003, I had The Ugly Organ in heavy rotation alongside Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, and “The Recluse” was about as likely to inspire me to pursue a shameful hookup as “Many Men” was to getting me to put a hit out on the guy who wouldn’t shut the fuck up in Con Law. Both were just more cinematic renderings of more humiliating, but occasionally exhilarating, character defects that rarely found their way into popular music. I was also playing a lot of Grand Theft Auto, and I can see all three of these as sandbox experiences, where I could air out and process all of this aimless negativity and entertain myself before going about the business of being a decent human being.
Yet there was something more prescient and powerful in the ultimate message of The Ugly Organ — in the same way that someone doesn’t actually have to get divorced to find meaning in Domestica, people who don’t make miserable music for a living can understand the danger of leveraging your personal misery as a form of branding. For the past 10 years or so, music that bore the imprint of The Ugly Organ – early The World Is A Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid To Die, Foxtails – was likely described as “post-emo.” In a way, Cursive had always aspired for that descriptor, as “Art Is Hard” completely deconstructs the genre’s lyrical facade and introspection by sharing the harrowing experience of a lifer and the ensuing lesson learned: even the most “real” and “confessional” form of music is still a type of public performance. And at this point, I’ve come to see The Ugly Organ‘s legacy on emo in a mostly non-musical way.
From the very moment mainstream publications started to recognize an “emo revival,” both the bands and the people covering it were quick to distinguish the newer breed from the more tawdry and troublesome elements of its recent past, which includes albums like The Ugly Organ. A lot of modern emo was designed as a response to, or even a backlash against music like this, driven by the belief that albums which center such toxic behavior shouldn’t be what this genre is about. There are many good reasons for broadening the scope of emo beyond this kind of public self-immolation, but there’s also a specious belief that pivoting away from albums like The Ugly Organ is a moral necessity. It follows a fairly common, top-down argument about art — that if people are exposed to less negative behavior, they’re less likely to act upon their own urges — but ceasing to glorify albums about messy and sometimes harmful behavior will not likely eliminate such behavior from a scene filled with young, emotional people trying to figure shit out.
As I began to conceptualize this piece, I got news of Worst Party Ever’s decision to cancel their upcoming tours, as its frontman admitted to a “toxic” pattern of infidelity at the expense of a longtime partner. Shortly thereafter, the fledgling emo group American Beauty released a statement addressing rumors they framed as a form of blackmail, being circulated by a vengeful ex who wanted to ruin their reputation; in the process, the author had to admit to the world at large about a time they lied about premature ejaculation. Cynics would argue that this type of behavior isn’t surprising from emo bands, even if both groups worked within a more modern, genial, slice-of-life variant of emo. On the other hand, infidelity and other forms of “toxic” behavior are hardly unique to emo, and it could be argued that the genre’s prior reputation has inspired a lot more self-policing within the scene.
I’ll leave it to the reader to assess the veracity or sincerity of each band’s statement, the severity of the offenses, and whether the consequences are commensurate. Either way, they set off a familiar cycle of discourse within the DIY emo community — whether this scene enables an inordinate amount of bad behavior or subjects its members to unreasonable standards of conduct and self-disclosure, or both. Outside of the DIY emo community, the response mostly ranged from befuddlement to outright mockery, bringing up Confessions or Rumours or S.O.S. or 4:44 or any number of classic albums that sublimated infidelity and manifold forms of sexual conflict into timeless and resonant art.
Yet in those particular circumstances, each artist was famous enough for their indiscretions to actually feel like the subject of public discourse, their celebrity resulting in a forfeiture of certain privacies, fair or not. To the average listener, the relationship between Jay-Z and Beyoncé is reality television, something playing out for their entertainment. Meanwhile, Worst Party Ever and American Beauty are closer to Kasher’s status and presumably took the lessons of The Ugly Organ to heart — they could have made music instead of Notes app apologies, but decided it wasn’t worth the cost of having to be that person in both public and private. And so I see the castration in “Butcher The Song” as something ultimately meant as a Van Gogh-like gesture, the most melodramatic way of saying, “This is what I did for you.” And at the same time, telling the listener, “It doesn’t have to be this way.”