Looking under the radar

John Koenig

It’s true what they say – it is possible to sing about yourself so much that your songs inevitably become satirical diary entries of your egocentric existence. Okay, so maybe it’s just me that says that. I have a tendency to generalize my wit and wisdom to other people. But regardless of my own egocentricity, this edition of “Looking under the radar” will examine one of the premier songwriters of the tear-in-your-beer crowd.

Tim Kasher, the soft spoken and yet extremely blunt singer-songwriter behind projects such as Cursive and The Good Life has never had much need for outside influence on his writing. The Omaha songsmith has made no secret of the turmoil created in his life by his divorce. In fact, he has been so open on the subject that it has made its way into multiple songs.

Before we jump in, I should note that Kasher has already had a very prolific career. For the sake of being concise, we’ll have to focus on Kasher’s main project, Cursive. The band calls Saddle Creek Records home. Saddle Creek is of course best known for sad-sap poster boy Conor Oberst and his seemingly omnipresent project Bright Eyes.

The meat and potatoes of Kasher’s lyrical scope are of course love and all its nasty turns. Perhaps the most noticeable and stark musings appear on Cursive’s “Domestica.” Released in 2000, “Domestica” is the grueling documentary of love gone wrong. The vicious fights, the breath-stopping silences and the messy recoil from a love life gone down in flames are all present.

It’s also interesting to note that “Domestica” marks a significant shift in focus for the musical side of Cursive.

While Kasher has always relied more on the contorted melodies and bright, splashy guitar flares of hard indie rock, this album is where pop sensibility clashed with the band’s Fugazi-esque influence of the 90s.

Compared to some of the group’s earlier work, “Domestica” is the excited puppy turning into the dog that sits quietly by the fireplace and is really good at writing mature rock songs in between naps.

As I plodded with a heavy hand earlier on, perhaps the most striking feature of Kasher’s lyricism is its gut- wrenching honesty. Using both realistic accounts of blood-gone-bad relationships and somewhat violent imagery, he paints a grueling picture of love and loss. The song “Shallow Means, Deep Ends” contains the rabid passage “Swimming at night/We’ve finally hit bottom/Swallowing promises back into our lungs/Losing direction of our affections.”

Sounds fun, doesn’t it? But where I think this introspective style falls short is its tendency to stand so close to the fire it doesn’t notice the fire doesn’t necessarily appeal to every listener.

However, as we move on to what I consider to be the crown jewel of Kasher’s songwriting, we’ll notice an optimism that transcends self-pity.

2003’s “The Ugly Organ” is the Cursive album that not only utilizes stern, mature musicianship but a lyrical growth that is sure to shake the bones of both the love-sick empathizers and the cynical critics.

The album’s second track “Art is Hard,” for example, shows Kasher throwing his fixation with himself on the cutting board.

“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.”

With this sharp-tongued self-criticism, Kasher exhibits a newfound awareness of his surroundings, it seems. The album’s other tracks tell his story in inventive new ways, through far-reaching lyrical metaphor and, of course, his newfound optimism. “Staying Alive,” the album’s closing track, fades out in an epic chorus sing-along, with the hopeful line “the worst is over.”

I guess that in the end, all that really matters is if the words strike a chord with the individual listener. If you need a reason to despise Kasher’s preoccupation with himself, you’ll certainly find one. But the sheer honesty of his writing may be worth the price of admission.

Looking back, I may have been a little hard on the poor guy. But I really don’t think he would have it any other way. Take the bad with the good, and check out the albums mentioned in this article. And be sure to keep an eye out for the new Cursive album coming out in 2006.

Keil is a junior print journalism major and a showcase editor for The Spectator.