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These days, whenever he puts out a new album from either of the two bands he fronts -- the clamorous Cursive or the comparatively subdued, acoustic-based the Good Life -- Tim Kasher knows the phone calls are coming. Not from family and friends wanting to congratulate him for the achievement. Not from journalists ringing up the singer/multi-instrumentalist at his Omaha apartment to ask him what he listens to in the tour van and how he feels about being "emo." Not from his pals over at nearby Saddle Creek Records letting him know what his first week's sales figures look like.
No . . . the phone calls. The ones he dreads. The ones from the current and former flames (including an ex-wife) who've listened to Kasher's latest penetrating tales of lust, betrayal, heartbreak, resentment, and regret and dialed his number madly, demanding to know: Did that really happen? Is that part about us? Did you lie to me? Did you screw around on me? Is that what you really think about me? Is that what you're really like? How could you do this?!?!
"I just tell them that I can't . . . that I need to have the right to express this stuff, and I can't be confronted with it," Kasher says. "Because if I'm confronted with it, I'm gonna be too scared to write it next time. Maybe that's selfish, I dunno. So without being rude I try to dismiss things and be like, 'Hey, y'know, it's not just about you, it's about this person,' or 'I'm sorry, I can't talk about it.' It's tough, because I don't want to censor myself, but I also don't believe in someone I've been close to listening to my song and tearing their hair out or crying their eyes out."
Perhaps no more acutely has Kasher elicited that kind of response to his music than on the new Good Life disc. The band's third full-length release is called Album of the Year, and it's just that: a conceptual 12-song dramatic narrative depicting the rise and fall of a yearlong Midwestern relationship between a musician and a bartender; an indie rock opera of sorts. It unfolds in 10 chapters, bookended by the title track -- an overture that lays out the storyline, themes, and musical ideas to be subsequently explored in keener detail -- and "Two Years This Month," a mostly a cappella epilogue that places the entire experience in the context of a narrator who's had plenty of time to look back upon what went wrong.
So how does the story of our doomed lovers begin? "The first time that I met her I was throwing up in the ladies' room stall/She asked me if I needed anything; I said, 'I think I spilled my drink,'" Kasher sings over a pretty, folky acoustic strum to kick off "Album of the Year." As the plot thickens, so does the instrumentation: Guitarist Ryan Fox chimes in with ringing melodies as the couple moves into a studio apartment and makes passionate love every afternoon; at the first signs of trouble in paradise, the acoustic riffs turn more urgent and percussive as djembe drums enter the fray; and by the end, when the girl is packing up her albums, books, and toaster to leave for good, bassist Stefanie Drootin, drummer Roger Lewis, and keyboardist/mandolinist Mike Mogis (who, as Saddle Creek's in-house producer, also helmed the album) have joined in, turning the song into a jangly, soaring rocker.
It's a remarkable, ear-grabbing opening gambit, and Album of the Year grows even more vivid and engrossing from there. On "Night and Day," Kasher's quivering tenor introduces his protagonists' damaged psyches -- hints of self-mutilation and alcoholism abound -- over a moody merry-go-round waltz of accordion, standup bass, and organ. Easing into and out of a scratchy falsetto on the delicate, swaying "Under a Honeymoon," Kasher croons like Joe Pernice as he voices his characters' simmering doubts about their love, despite the quick escalation of their romance.
And then, on the tense, theatrical fifth track, "Notes in His Pocket," the shit begins to hit the fan -- while his girlfriend is at home on her night off, the guy gets drunk at a local bar with an old female friend, heads to her apartment, and, well, you know what happens next. "She opens the door/Falls to the floor/Says, 'I'm bitter sick of sweet and pure, take me now, I'm yours,'" Kasher bays over propulsive piano and jagged guitars, the bite in his voice amplifying the drama. But his caddish character isn't finished yet -- he finds out an ex-girlfriend is back in town and goes to visit her: "She gives me a hug/Till our hips are flush/Says, 'Boy we've hardly kept in touch, it's time for catching up.'"
Of course, his girlfriend figures out what's going on -- and she's already unhappy in the relationship -- and the second half of the album depicts the slow, sad unraveling of their union. It's here that Kasher's lyrics shine the brightest, detailing with incisive grace those moments in which you feel the love slipping away and there's nothing you can do about it. Intimacy is lost ("Your hips have this way of saying no way/An impenetrable barricade") and devotion has turned to apathy ("You used to call me on your break but you've been so busy/You used to bring me tomato soup but you keep forgetting") on the mournfully majestic, Arab Strap-y "October Leaves."
And on the stunning, nearly 10-minute "Inmates," Kasher sinks into a secondary role, turning the lead vocals over to now-former Good Life member Jiha Lee. Her sweet-but-determined delivery -- solo at first; Kasher makes it a duet a third of the way in -- engages in that conversation, the one in which the accusations and armchair psychoanalyses fly back and forth before one party decides to leave once and for all. "What are we still doing here, so desperate for company?/ There's a Greyhound on Jackson Street, there's an airport in Council Bluffs/Hell, there's a car in the driveway/Fifty ways to get lost," she belts as the backing guitar-fueled dynamics flit between demure and assertive, mirroring the flow and tone of the lyrics. Then, a few songs later, she's history -- moved on to a new lover -- and he's left to contemplate his loss as "Two Years This Month" fades away. The end.
Here's the thing about Album of the Year, though, according to Kasher: It's a story. Like they teach you in English 101, you should never take the narrator's voice for that of the author, right? After all, Johnny Cash never really shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. But he lived close enough to the dark side to be able to write that with conviction. Similarly, Kasher has infused Album with enough bits and pieces of reality drawn from his metaphorically bloodstained notebooks -- uncensored ruminations on his messy divorce, failed relationships, and overboard boozing, which, he prays, will never be read by any eyes but his own -- to earn those frantic phone calls from ex-lovers.
"It's fiction," Kasher insists of the work he puts out for public consumption. "I never met anyone by throwing up in the ladies' room stall, but it's symbolic of the way a relationship starts. That's what writing is, you know? I use tons of specifics and I write from what I know, and so from there you get a fictionalized, complete story of a lot of different things you've gone through."
At the same time, admitting (or claiming?) that it's fiction opens a can of worms from the fan end of the spectrum. "Sometimes people, upon hearing that my songs are just stories, they get really upset. Like I've misled them somehow. They're like, 'Oh, I thought this was all nonfiction,' and I've never told anyone that it was. But I never lie -- I never try to conjure up feelings or imagine what it's like to be this or that. I'm always writing from what I see or what I go through, because if not . . . I mean . . . people can write any way they want, but for me personally, I absolutely have to come from somewhere inside of myself. Otherwise it will come off as contrived."
When pressed about performing songs from Album of the Year live on the current tour, though, Kasher cops to enough uneasiness playing these tunes in front of people that he tips his hand as to just how genuine and revealing they might be.
"It's always great when the crowd is really quiet and everyone seems to be really focused on it, but the more they're focused on what I'm singing the weirder it gets for me. I'm usually up there like, 'Oh God, will someone please break a glass or something!'"
Still, with the Good Life being his primary outlet now and for the foreseeable future -- Cursive's gone on an indefinite hiatus and Kasher's coy about stating unequivocally that the band is through -- he's got plenty of time and opportunity to make peace with his work. Or maybe he doesn't want to.
"I've always been into discomfort, even my own -- it's something I've been doing since I was 16 and starting out in bands. I used to be terrible about it, and I guess I've matured some. But I'm still really into making other people uncomfortable."