Now I can’t stop the monster I’ve created
These, the only lyrics to The Ugly Organ‘s “Herald! Frankenstein”, go a long way toward explaining Tim Kasher’s artistic output over the last decade and a half. Cursive, his longtime band, first caught the attention of disaffected youth beyond their native Omaha with 2000’s Domestica, a howling whirlwind of emotional indigence, but the whirlwind entered gale force territory with The Ugly Organ.
For every kid with dyed black hair and ambitions for self-flagellating art, The Ugly Organ was basically the best album that had ever existed, a flawless piece of meta art that lay bare the dichotomy dominating Kasher’s life at that point. He sold his pain to an adoring crowd, finding commercial and critical success in the process, but the end result was a need for constant blood-letting to sustain the pained howl. As he wrote on “Butcher the Song”, “I’m writing songs to entertain, but these people, they just — they just want pain.” So Kasher was forced to constantly create more, self-sabotaging for the sake of success. For such artists, whose pain is tied inextricably to their authenticity and marketability, happiness becomes anathema to success. A choice must be made: be a successful monster or an emotionally free nobody, and Kasher’s decision to not only embrace the monster but map its transformation, is detailed throughout The Ugly Organ‘s lyric sheet.
Cut it out –
your self-inflicted pain
is getting too routine
the crowds are catching on
to the self-inflicted song
Well, here we go again
the art of acting weak
Fall in love to fail
to boost your CD sales
And that CD sells – yeah, what a hit
You’ve got to repeat it
you gotta’ sink to swim
The Ugly Organ was, by and large, an album about the brutal process of making such albums, exposing the self-hatred and insecurity and fear of that position. The ominous carnival barker opening, the off-kilter organ, the kick to the chest of “Some Red-Handed Sleight of Hand”, the on-the-nose “Art Is Hard”, the fractured chaos of “A Gentleman Caller” — all roads led through a haunted house of grotesque situations and twisted characters, each a reflection through a broken carnival mirror of Kasher converting pounds of flesh into something saleable.
It certainly helped that, musically, The Ugly Organ felt just as flailing and blood-soaked. The passages swell and dim, ranging from hypnotic strings to strangled guitar to ethereal choir, paralleling and informing the lyrical mood. Top billing will always go to Kasher’s caustic pen, but the unsung hero of The Ugly Organ was Gretta Cohn, Cursive’s short-lived cellist, who gave the album a sense of epic scale. She provided “Some Red-Handed Sleight of Hand” its churning undercurrent, “Harold Weathervein” its threatening edge, and “Sierra” a sense of bitter yearning.
When The Ugly Organ arrived back in the spring of 2003, it was a hit among fans and a critical success, the rare album that Pitchfork and Rolling Stone both lauded. But that was well over a decade ago, and youth music culture in the meantime has taken a wholehearted leap away from emo/post-punk into the heart of EDM, trading in emotive guitar squalls for electronic sounds and android textures.
So what does a reissue add to The Ugly Organ‘s legacy in light of this? Actually, a good amount. First, the album has been remastered, so good speakers allow one to hear every mangled guitar chord, every abused organ note, every polyp in Kasher’s throat. It makes a legendarily bilious album even more so, like watching surgery in HD. Second, the reissue includes eight bonus tracks, all of which were written and recorded alongside The Ugly Organ‘s tracks. Only sequencing keeps these from feeling like songs cut from the heart of the record, instead acting more as a self-hating coda.
Of course, anyone into Cursive when The Ugly Organ came out knew how to use the Internet well enough to track down these songs, and die hard fans have long considered them among Kasher’s finest. “Excerpts from Various Notes Strewn Around the Bedroom of April Connolly, Feb. 24, 1997” (if you can forgive the title), “Am I Not Yours?”, and the thrashing “Sinner’s Serenade” all add interesting accents to the album’s facade, but Cursive fans would have loved some demos or unheard material to give clues to the record’s foundations.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise in this bundle is the source material itself — how it still stands out as a superlative record, a moment of honest clarity in a notoriously self-mythologizing arena, and a high-water mark for Midwestern indie rock, one which features a critical cross-section of Saddle Creek’s best talent at the time: Jenny Lewis, Conor Oberst, Todd Fink and Clark Baechle from the Faint, and the ever-underrated Mike Mogis. The reissue in total serves to remind how few missteps the band made, how cohesive the album is, how carefully sequenced, how flawlessly arranged and executed.
Hateful albums don’t typically age well. In retrospect they often seem childish, sophomoric, futile. But The Ugly Organ holds up, partially because of an oft-overlooked feature of the album. Reams of paper have been written about the sheer spitting-into-your-own-face rage of the opening tracks, but little critical real estate has concerned itself with a simple fact about the album’s final act: it’s surprisingly tender, uplifting, downright hopeful. Perhaps more than any Kasher album to date, The Ugly Organ ends on an upnote.
Kasher may have felt helpless to stop the monster he had to create to continue selling records, but try telling that to the string-draped second half of “A Gentleman Caller”, where an apologetic Kasher intones, “The sunrise is just over that hill / The worst is over.” On “Sierra”, he’s “ready to settle down now … ready to leave that wrecking ball behind,” and the 10-minute suite “Staying Alive” opens with “I’ve decided tonight I’m staying alive” and ends with an angelic coda of “The worst is over”. Like the final rush of madness in James Joyce’s Ulysses, you can see the monster’s thoughts as he curls up to sleep, and his final one isn’t of pain or rage or bitterness at all. It’s hope.