For an increasingly disillusioned swath of maturing punks; for a Heartland underground whose hearts mirrored the panoramic anti-everything landscape of a war on terror; and for anyone who’d ever had a thoughtful, terrifying conversation with themselves about the nature of relationships as it pertained to possession, self-doubt, rage and the mollifying qualities screaming could induce, Cursive’s 2003 album The Ugly Organ was the album. Still is. No long-winded synopsis can take that simple fact away from it. But we’ll give it a try anyway.
What had been hinted at with the conceptual 2000 LP Domestica, frontman and primary songwriter Tim Kasher took to somewhat decadent extremes on the 12-track (equally conceptual) The Ugly Organ. Ostensibly poised as a self-reflective tirade, painted in strokes of both elegant symphonics and destructive, angular guitar wallops, The Ugly Organ broke open with a maniacal auditory intro of an out-of-tune organ sounding as if it were being played inside a tin shed, with a carnival barker previewing the opening lines to the album’s first proper song, “Some Red-Handed Slight of Hand”?a thinly veiled peek into the paranoid whims of Kasher’s seemingly fragile personality at the time. “There’s no use to keep a secret…everything I hide ends up in lyrics,” he sings, the first of many moments where the record veers from the plot of the touring dalliances of a crazy organist and his missteps on the road to a clearly pained reversal of the cameras toward the rigors of festooning your deepest inner turmoils into a soundboard or a song. Kasher’s guard slips again on the rollicking, cello-and horns rocker “Art is Hard,” wherein he satirizes the tropes of emotional lyricisms by howling, “You’re gonna break a leg when you get on stage and they scream your name/’Oh Cursive is so cool!’”
Notable is that this record was the final studio appearance by cellist Gretta Cohn, whose electric strings added tense dynamics to the Kasher-Ted Stevens (guitar, vocals)-Matt Maginn (bass) triad. Cohn’s bold playing was the foundation for Ugly Organ b-sides and rarities like “Excerpts From Various Notes Strewn Around the Bedroom of April Connolly, Feb. 24, 1997,” which opened the fantastic 8 Teeth to Eat You split EP (2002) with Japan’s Eastern Youth?a track that was meant for inclusion on The Ugly Organ, along with the explosive, trust-issue track “Am I Not Yours?” Both of these songs seem omitted from the final cut of Ugly Organ for good reason, as their potency is purely visceral. Respectively, these two songs encapsulate more of Kasher’s relationship demons better than almost any he penned when he still penned songs about that sort of thing routinely, and likely were more closely associated with the downward spiral melodrama outlined in Domestica a few years earlier. Fans of Cursive who’d never heard these two songs and don’t know how to use the Internet are going to be floored.
In terms of the merits of the deluxe reissue quotient, the entire album is remastered, and there are those eight additional tracks originally left on the cutting room floor included here. The packaging boasts some great photos?both promo and candid live shots?of the band during the time of The Ugly Organ’s release, as well as a full-color sampling of tour posters from 2003-2004, hand-drawn album cover concepts, full lyrics, a list of every tour date during that breakout period, and most interestingly, facsimiles of hand-written lyrics and outlines for “Art is Hard,” “The Recluse” and “Butcher the Song.” Like any reissue, especially one dubbed “deluxe” at that, it is an extremely cool snapshot of where Cursive was and what they looked and sounded like during and shortly after the release of this watershed album.
That The Ugly Organ continues to sound angry, lost, emotionally powerful and plaintive almost a dozen years after its initial release might be surprising to some people. Everyone grows up?Kasher even wrote an entire solo album about that on 2013’s Adult Film—but it’s rare when an album is allowed to mature the way this one has. As pretentious as it may read, albums turning inward on themselves to expose the hysterical psychoses of relationship deteriorations, the breakdown of the self, the metaphors of hokey self-obsession do not become caricatures. They are timeless and affecting and make ripples even if no one ever hears them.
Luckily, lots of people heard this album. And lots of people are now going to hear it again.