The Ugly Organ
By: Eric Greenwood
If all emo were as good as Cursive's The Ugly Organ, it wouldn't be the embarrassing cliché it is today. Alas, all emo is nowhere near as good as this record is, so it will have to wade through the usual minefield of prejudgments and knee-jerk insults that accompany any release in such a maligned genre. The Ugly Organ, ostensibly phase three in Cursive's run of thematic albums, stands as the band's finest to date. It's a blistering set of self-deprecation, filled with all the hate and confusion and love that any emo album worth its weight in sweaters and horn-rimmed glasses should have. In fact, this is exactly how tense, emotional rock is supposed to be played.
Tim Kasher's formula has improved by leaps and bounds. Not only has he carefully honed his songwriting skills, but he's also become a much more versatile vocalist. The post-Fugazi yell has morphed into a layered, mellifluous voice capable of matching the tension of the explosive dynamics. The Ugly Organ emits ugly sounds, like a saxophone squawking amidst the barrage of riffs or awkward, off-kilter percussive runs, but these abrasive moments are always countered with delicate interludes, revealing Cursive's unrivaled dynamic precision. Incorporating cello into the den of guitars effectively heightens the drama, as well, as Kasher addresses the listener in a santa-claus-isn't-real barrage of confessions and revelations.
The Ugly Organ is a thinly veiled sexual reference, and Kasher beats himself up for a variety of transgressions, mostly of a sexual nature. After peeling off the scabs of his divorce, which he exorcised on the equally cathartic, Cursive's Domestica, he apparently tackled hedonism head on, becoming somewhat of a sexual predator. Being a reflective emotional guy, Kasher can't help but hold a magnifying glass up to his behavior and dissect it for the benefit of his listeners. It's this overt sense of self-awareness of his position as a conduit through which people vicariously experience pain that also pervades this album's lyrical minutiae.
Every single song is an extension of the one before it, making The Ugly Organ more of a unified piece of music than merely a standard collection of songs. The bombastic swirl of post-punk and melodramatic rock of "Red Handed Slight Of Hand" is a pummeling tour de force. Its catchiness is undeniable and, barely scratching the two-minute mark, leaves you desperate for more. "Art Is Hard" is equally infectious, though the abrasiveness is less overt. The riff swings like a pendulum with the cello eclipsing even the shrillness of the guitars. Kasher's anger is never out of control; he's bottled it perfectly into short, cathartic bursts.
Even when pulling the throttle back as on "The Recluse" Kasher never fails to entertain, especially with lines like "my ego's like my stomach/it keeps shitting what I feed it." The song is orchestrated sublimely with a catchy arpeggiated guitar run backed by a languid pass on the cello. Everything drops out for the verses, except for the booming, echoing drums. There's no climax or shift in tension to speak of, but the song swells in your head, leaving a distinct imprint. The real anger kicks in half way through the album, specifically on "Butcher The Song." The riffs hammer away, rising and falling in dramatic crescendos, reminiscent of Led Zeppelin's self-indulgent mid-period, but Kasher does not allow indulgence to get the best of him. He keeps everything short and sweet and to the point. No extraneous notes. No bullshit.
The highlight of the album is "Driftwood: A Fairy Tale"- what has to be the best emo song ever written. That's a double-edged sword, I realize, but I'm operating under the hypothetical premise that emo can indeed be good. It's a devastating love song with true anguish at its core, the climax of which will make the tiny hairs on your neck stand bolt upright. Kasher's songwriting prowess is in peak form here, as he tells the tale of a Pinocchio-like boy that falls in love a girl, who only strings him along to break his heart. The way Kasher builds this tale is nothing short of genius, and when his voice rises beyond his natural range for the climax the effect is staggering.
This album is packed so full of memorable hooks and melodic runs that it immediately demands repeated listens. You won't be able to turn it off. It's practically redundant for me to say that this is easily the best album of 2003 so far. I guess, after years of eschewing anything even remotely emo, fate or karma (or whatever hippie tag you want to give it) is forcing me to eat crow- and lots of it. Next thing you know I'll be walking around with an "emo goddess" t-shirt from Hot Topic. Actually, Tim Kasher has elevated his band so far beyond some lame sub-genre tag with this album it's absurd for me – or anyone – even to try to pin it down. The Ugly Organ will go down as one of the best dramatic punk albums ever. Mark my words.