[24 February 2012]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
When considering the failure of Cursive’s concept album I Am Gemini, it may be helpful to ponder the words of Stephen Sondheim. Or Friedrich Nietzsche. Or noted aesthetic philosopher Phife “Go get yourself some toilet paper ‘cause your lyrics is butt” Dawg. Any words, really, that distract you from those of Cursive lyricist/singer Tim Kasher, because his words are butt. Terrible, terrible butt. You can open the script to any page—btw, THE LYRIC SHEET IS A SCRIPT, COMPLETE WITH STAGE DIRECTIONS—and find gems like, “When the cat’s away / It’s said the mouse will play”. We all remember Nietzsche’s dictum: “Prefacing a cliché with ‘it’s said’ renders it no less a cliché, while rendering its user more an ass.” Kasher soldiers on, still babbling about cats: “Now the cat’s out of the bag and someone’s got to pay.” Imagine, if you will, the terrible dialogue from the movie The Happening, where Marky Mark talked to the trees but they wouldn’t listen to him. Now imagine that same dialogue full of halfhearted attempts at rhyme and assonance (pun intended), and you’ll approach the cringe-inducing cleverness on display here. Also you’ll bang your head against furniture.
Gemini’s “plot” revolves around two estranged twins, named Cassius and Pollock by their smug hipster mother Edith Hamilton. (She’s not a character.) Cassius was that dude talking all the smack about cats. At the time, he was getting ready to kill his sleeping “doppelganger” with a knife. (Phife: “Sucker MCs go and use the word ‘doppelganger’ / Now their song won’t never be a banger.”) You can’t really blame Cassius. Pollock had earlier shackled his brother and cut his head open, a misguided attempt to delve into the secret world of twins. Most of this action takes place in a big old creepy house, though for imagination’s sake, there’s one scene at a creepy sideshow carnival, where creepy Siamese Twins teach our heroes about life. That’s after the brothers’ past crimes appear dressed as Skeletons, but before we learn that It Was All A Dream. At one point the brothers travel through a looking glass—THAT’s the dream!—“into a world similar, although somehow askew”. Sounds like a challenge for Art Direction.
In The Man Who Mistook His Show For a Hat, Stephen Sondheim praises Porgy and Bess, writing that lyricist DuBose Heyward “understood the difference between character and characteristics; the lyrics sounded like heightened natural speech rather than self-advertised ‘poetry’.” Kasher doesn’t understand the distinction. His line “Albatross necktie / Looks so dignified / But you gotta loosen it up!” fails both ways: it’s not poetic, nor does anyone talk like that. The line doesn’t even help to establish character, which would have been helpful since Kasher sings both brothers exactly the same. Without the script, it’s impossible to differentiate Cassius from Pollock; both just sound like facile indie-rock singers making awful allusions and puns.
This seems a good time to share the dodgiest line from I Am Gemini: “Out cold, run over by the boulder of Sisyphus / Doesn’t it seem to get a bit repetitive? / Overandoverandoveragain…” High school mythology students in Cursive’s audience grin knowingly.
Believe me, I understand: writing a rock opera is hard work. The Drive-By Truckers only attempted it once. Look, I like the Who as much as the next guy. (Next guy: “What’s an Eminence Front?” Roger Daltrey: “IT’S A PUT-ON!”) But nobody pretends like the lyrics to Tommy are good, with their painful exposition and their supple wrists. Tommy gets by on its songs, which have held up to decades of radio play, endless cover versions, and armies of high school students singing them on the bus to speech contests. I Am Gemini falls into every rock opera trap—even its title is exposition. But if Cursive had brought the tunes, all would be forgiven. (Well, except for “I’m gonna paint this bloody town black and blue”.)
Sadly, the band chokes on the albatross necktie of Kasher’s lyrics. From the press release: “Kasher… wrote album lyrics in a linear fashion, in order, from song 1 to song 13.” Hooks appear during Act One—the “Come out, come out” chorus of “Warmer Warmer” is pretty catchy—only to get chased away by the all-important storyline. The band alludes to rock music without fleshing it out into self-reliant songs. “The Sun and Moon” is probably the best, with its organ-driven New Wave momentum, but even that’s killed by Kasher’s mythological asides. And if Act One is where hooks go to die, Act Two is a wasteland. Kasher briefly tries to play the resurrector and give the dead some life, handing his band an actual EXPLOSION to play—“We’re gonna blow this unholy house to dust!”—but they just sound like some guys playing an explosion.
Back in 2006, Cursive released the extremely likable concept album Happy Hollow. Lyrically it was more transmissions from the Kasherian sphincter, something about religion and The Wizard of Oz, but the music had so much life and so many bizarre horn lines, the words hardly mattered. Realizing that storyline was their least important concern, Cursive built their concept from discrete hooky songs. I Am Gemini gets its priorities backwards and lacks horns. For all its tempo shifts and attempts at fun, Gemini sounds like the work of an ascetic band scared of pleasure. When Cursive attempts another one of these things—and you know they will—they’d do well to heed Sondheim’s dictum from his manifesto BrainyQuote.com: “If you’re dealing with a musical in which you’re trying to tell a story, it’s got to sound like speech. At the same time it’s got to be a song.” Just one of those goals would suffice.