Cue up the music, kids, and hit the lights. Now gather 'round as Tim Kashner tells another tale of a misanthropic soul negotiating the emotional chasm between the promise of love and our damning frailties. Kashner's the narcissistic, self-loathing puppeteer pulling the strings on his personal tale of woe, with a nod and a wink to the self-absorption of it all.
You see, like the character Charlie Kaufman in the film "Adaptation," Kashner's written himself into the music on "The Ugly Organ," his latest release with his band, Cursive. The Nebraska musician's emotionally scarred and self-consciously critical character stars in a series of vignettes, constructed around a theatrical conceit that's half melodrama, half circus sideshow barker. It's both a lament and a lark, as Kashner is quick to break the fourth wall and puncture the self-importance of his suffering.
The record continues the loose narrative arc begun on Cursive's breakthrough album, 2000's "Domestica," and followed thematically in 2002 with "Black Out," his solo release under the Good Life moniker. "Black Out" traces his journey from courtship, marriage and divorce to anger, denial and dissolution, and now through the emotional wreckage strewn in its whirlwind wake.
Kashner laughs when it's suggested that he's effectively used his personal life for lyrical grist, having peppered his albums with enough self-referential deconstructions of his small-scale stardom to make him an indie-rock Slim Shady.
"I think it's great what `Eminem` writes about. I can't believe someone is being that self-analytical in Top 40 pop music. Most people don't even recognize it. There's so much more going on with him," Kashner suggests. "Bono tried to do it, and he just failed miserably. Nobody really understood it, because it seemed too much like he was trying to be, 'Oh look at my silly character, aren't I silly? I'm a silly rock star.' But he seemed way too engrossed in himself."
Kashner himself has been accused of the same sort of egocentrism. He mocks it on "Some Red Handed Slight of Hand," a song off his latest album: "I've been making money off my indifference ... the blood on my hands after I wrote this album, play it off as stigmata for crossover fans." But while he plays his penchant for self-revelation for laughs, Kashner admits he knows no better way to create.
"The best work is always your most personal work, that's what you can describe and know the best, and what you're going through is universal with what everyone else is going through in one facet or another. So the closer that you write personally, the more universal it probably is," he explains.
It's then, he feels, that he's challenged his audience to be "more honest with themselves as a listener."
Picking up after the self-descriptive emotional nadir of "Black Out's" "Some Bullshit Escape" and "The New Denial," "The Ugly Organ" focuses on Kashner's attempts at re-creating an identity outside of his sense of personal injury and loss of faith. In doing so, he acknowledges his audience's appetite for misery and his willingness to provide it, as well as its impact on those in his life.
On "Art Is Hard" he sings, "the crowds are catching on/ to the self-inflicted song ... the art of acting weak/ fall in love to fail/ to boost your CD sales," while in "Butcher the Song" a girl complains, "Each album, I'll get shit on more, 'Who's Tim's latest whore?'"
Musically, The Ugly Organ hits a striking new chord thanks to the addition of cellist Gretta Cohn. Cohn joined the band in time for its "Burst & Bloom" EP, but the songs were already arranged and she simply played over them. On this album, Cursive takes full advantage of Cohn, as she brings additional tension to the already churning, Fugazi-inspired staccato guitar crashes.
Indeed, often as Cursive's guitars crash with modulated fury, Cohn's cello offers musical counterpoint, a legato rush against spastic guitar blasts. While earlier compositions were ruled by the tempered syncopation of the guitars, the cello now forges a powerful, visceral low end with enhanced ability to carry the songs' melodic line. Kashner welcomed Cohn not only for her talent, but because he believes she was the perfect prescription for a problem in waiting.
"It was just what we needed and especially what I needed. After doing those first three Cursive albums I was tired -- not necessarily of doing Cursive -- but I was tired of doing it in the format that we were doing it. So it seemed a viable answer that if you brought in a different timbre it could open the doors to different ideas, different styles and different sounds. To kind of re-create it for myself and make it interesting again," he says.
Kashner admits that the burst of buzz around Omaha and his label, Saddle Creek Records, has been a bit unnerving. He's quite happy for Conor Oberst (Bright Eyes) and his childhood chums in The Faint, but he's thankful not to bear the same yoke and expectations as Oberst.
"One big benefit for myself as a songwriter is that, as far as nationwide, I've become kind of the underdog, and I think that's a great place to be, because nobody really hates underdogs. I'm the one that everyone wants to raise up on their shoulders," he says. "I don't have to carry the torch Conor carries, that's for sure."
One might suggest the weight of his own story seems to be more than enough for Kashner to bear.