Cursive front man Tim Kasher recites the incident clinically. "It ended up being one of those really unusual life and art reflecting each other coincidences that we had already named the album The Ugly Organ," Kasher says dryly. He's describing the collapsed lung and resulting surgery that landed him in the hospital midway through recording Cursive's latest record, an open-to-interpretation conceptual piece about the inner self's clashes with external forces.
"They gave me the gradual hunch that it's something I was born with," the 28-year-old Kasher says of this particular ugly organ. "I was born with an abnormality on my left lung -- it might be one of those things where I was born a little underdeveloped. We waited three days to go to the hospital -- one of the dangerous things about [a collapsed lung] is that your body will fairly quickly adjust to it and people don't really know what happened to them. Sometimes people die because they don't get it checked. [When I went to the hospital] there was so much air in my chest it had pushed all of my organs out of place.
"The suck part of it for me, part of my abnormality, is that my lungs aren't willing to heal themselves, so they had to surgically put it back together, basically," he continues. "A lot of people, our bodies [heal themselves]; you put your arm in a cast and it will work itself back together. My lung is a bastard and it won't do it."
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Eerily precognitive art can be a bastard, too.
Add Kasher's lungs to his inventory of ugly organs -- there's no shortage of applicable entendres on Cursive's fourth album. The thunderous and metronomically precise post-hard-core band, part of the increasingly notorious Saddle Creek collective from Omaha, Nebraska (see accompanying story), has produced a concept album in which Kasher -- the ugly organist -- dissects his relationship with the ugly organ, the identity of which is interchangeable and wholly interpretive. It's an annotated biopsy of a tormented and self-loathing young man's heart, lungs, dick and musical instruments, and one of the best albums released so far this year.
In 2002, Cursive entered the Presto! Studio in Lincoln with the concept to The Ugly Organ already in tow. It would be a work of disgust, penance and self-flagellation centered on sexual relationships. "What we were after was one half of it being the internal argument between, in this case, organist and organ -- antagonizer and protagonizer -- whatever you're struggling with internally," Kasher explains. He preferred to leave specific interpretations to the listener -- the first part of the album would be analytical, the remainder demonstrative. "If it's not the realization of the process itself, then it's how those songs are a direct result of that process. First, it was specifically a sexual tension or sexual frustration, so a lot of it deals with that. A lot of the songs I see as different branches of sexuality, of the sexual organ. But it doesn't have to be confined to just that."
Cursive released its last full-length album, Domestica, on January 1, 2000. Domestica is known as "the divorce album," a chronicle of Kasher's crumbled marriage and each partner's chronic failings. The Ugly Organ will be widely perceived as a sequel of sorts, as it documents Kasher's sexual misadventures and resulting anguish, but he dismisses the idea. "It's been called a couple of times a post-divorce album,' and I think that's silly," he says. "Everything's post-divorce now, what can I say? If you want to look at it that way, I suppose you can, but this [album] is me escaping that, too."
Between Domestica and The Ugly Organ, Cursive added a member, cellist Gretta Cohn, to its core of drummer Clint Schnase, bassist Matt Maginn, guitarist/vocalist Ted Stevens, and Kasher. The addition of Cohn, which first revealed itself on the 2001 EP Burst & Bloom, complicated and further intellectualized Cursive's math-rock timing and intricate instrumental interplay. The jerky, staccato nature of the cello complemented the band's calculated rhythm section and hush-to-roar dynamics. Now, it serves to underscore the intensity and volatility of The Ugly Organ.
The Ugly Organ opens with "The Ugly Organist," a minute-long collage of carnival sounds, a cacophony of voices and organ dissonance that introduces the unsettling tone of the album. A drum roll later, "Some Red Handed Sleight of Hand" begins with the self-conscious announcement, "And now we proudly present songs perverse and songs of lament. A couple hymns of confession and songs that recognize our sick obsessions." It's a hyperactively coarse explanation of the album, where Kasher admits "everything I hide ends up in lyrics . . . so read on -- accuse me when you're done," and concludes by exclaiming "this is the blood that I found on my hands after I wrote this album."
A song later, on the smashing "Art Is Hard," Kasher is taking himself and other songwriters to task for their overwrought exhibitionism, in the process thrashing his own suspect motivations.
"I went through a lot of different versions of those lyrics," Kasher recalls. "I really liked the instrumentation on that song and I worked really hard on the lyrics. I think the reason they came out like they did was because I truly hated where I was going with it every time. So I ended up making fun of myself for it.
"That's also where I tend to shake the finger at other people, but I feel like since I'm a songwriter I have the right to shake the finger at other songwriters. I'm totally suspicious of people who regurgitate feelings, rehash ideas, or crap like that."
Over the course of the record, Cursive is at times pretty and poppy ("The Recluse," "Driftwood: A Fairy Tale"), and at other times is angular and jagged ("Butcher the Song," "A Gentleman Caller," "Bloody Murderer"), but almost always is dramatic. "Butcher the Song" ends with Kasher jubilantly deciding that the ugly organ must be severed to compensate for its sins; whether that means balls or heart, the sentiment weighs heavy.
The Ugly Organ closes with the 10-minute opus "Staying Alive," in which a spent Kasher decides that despite the darkness and pain of life, he'll choose not to end it. It closes with a chorus of "ghosts" -- actually a collection of Omaha musicians like Bright Eyes' Conor Oberst and the Faint's Clark and Todd Baechle -- singing, "The worst is over."
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"I'm just . . . really hard on myself," Kasher says. "I think it's that whole, if I'm really hard on myself I tend to be really hard on whoever it is I'm closest to. I truly feel remorse for that, I think that it's unfair.
"I guess I'm still a firm believer in our animal instincts, which is wanting to mate and procreate," he says later.
Sharing all these demons through his music seemed appropriate to Kasher. Now that he's playing the songs for audiences, though, the exhibitionism is slightly unsettling. "Some of it is subject matter I'm still not very comfortable with, I guess. But that's what I'm under the impression artists are supposed to do, that the closest you get to the universal, which is what any writer is trying to achieve, is by writing what's closest to you, because what's closest to you is probably what's closest to everyone else because we all go through similar life experiences."
Despite The Ugly Organ and its overt messages to the contrary, Kasher is neither unhappy nor frustrated. "I actually think this is the best thing I have going for me," he says contentedly. "It's really what's keeping me the happiest. I'm getting a lot of fulfillment out of the writing process and I guess that's just not always the case, so it's been a really great way for me to stave off depression."