Sometimes, I worry about Tim Kasher. I know that's a completely ludicrous, arrogant feeling to have. It presumes that I, as an avid but distant fan, know what's going on in the private life and mind of an artist through his art. Conor Oberst never had a younger brother that died in a bathtub and Will Sheff is, in all likelihood, not a woman cheating on her husband on an island off the coast of Maine. It's common for artists to invent a fiction of a situation to channel emotional truth. Yet, for some reason, Kasher has always seemed like the most earnest and fiction-less songwriter I have known, for better or for worse.
This all started for me with the song, "Art is Hard." It was one of my first exposures to the band, and the fact that it was so self-aware and self-referential colored a lot of my early impression of the band. Here was a guy singing about songs. In the lyrics, the speaker laments the lack of emotional turmoil to milk for profit and song. In fact, the highest form of turmoil he has is, in fact, that very situation: passing the hat around and making money off of his misery. "Everything I hide ends up in lyrics," sings Kasher. Who are we to doubt his authenticity when he baldly addresses it?
Only he knows how much of the guy singing is Tim Kasher and the rest of us have to do our best to not care. But the character he has painted over the last 10 years strikes me as one of the more tortured ones in modern music; yet, it's not always break-ups and death that tears him up. Sometimes, it's just the dead-end mundane quality of life that spurs Kasher to emotional catastrophe.
If you clicked any of those two links, you know what I mean. Tim Kasher, or at least the characters in his song, is a writer scared of "getting older and less interesting," and being a "weathered writer [losing his] steam." Most revealingly: "I spent the best years of my life waiting on the best years of my life." He summons the best kind of warts-and-all-honesty. It's not instantly appealing, it's not even pretty, or even worthwhile. But it has the weight of truth, which is a separate value.
With the 2006 album, "Happy Hollow" Kasher took to writing stories and concepts with a slight philosophical and political edge. It was more firmly seated in fiction rather than expressive heart explosions. But, he returned to the game with the excellent sounding, but awkwardly titled, "Mama I'm Swollen." Instead of following it up with another Cursive album, he's putting out a solo album. I put off picking it up for at least a month. The whole time, I wondered: Where does he go from here? What is the mood of 2010 for Tim Kasher? For a writer worried about losing that spark, he sure is prolific.
His album, The Game of Monogamy, hit in early October. The title tells you all you need to know about the central concept, and it sounds like a very Kasher-esque topic to hit on, precisely the kind of thing he can go to town on. Despite the worries of "Art is Hard," some of the best shit comes from emotional self-immolation.
1. Monogamy Overture
As if to let you know, "this project is different," the album starts with a pretty instrumental that sounds more akin to Jon Brion than Saddle Creek. It's short, but is important as a tone-setter and laying down the pipe for melodies to come.
2. A Grown Man
Then this song follows up, and, unfortunately, it's tough to listen to. The central player in The Game of Monogamy laments his plight: the pressures of being a full grown adult, and the expectations that come with it, like finding real direction and accumulating wealth through shitty jobs. Not only is it a thin emotional premise, but Desaparecidos did it better. Sonically, it's grating. He employs Bad Religion-like harmonies and the beat is a boring, stomping thing. Even though it's only 2 minutes, that's 2 minutes longer than I care to listen to someone wreck himself over being a grown man.
3. I'm Afraid I'm Gonna Die Here
This is much more like it. It opens with a ska-like trumpet line, energetic and bouncy, and everything just sounds so much nicer. The lyrics are still par for the course: "I've got to write another chapter / I've been feeling incomplete / This epic voyage of my thirties reads a little weak." While the last track was a hard-to-relate-to riff about avoiding job applications, this one is more about never reaching your potential. I think that resonates with a much wider swath of people, whether it be people who feel like their relationship is a dead end, or their life is unremarkable. We all have ambitions (and delusions) about our exceptional abilities -- I've written about my own many times here. Kasher gives us his nightmare obituary above pretty claps and female backup singers: "Timothy was a sensible citizen / he cast aside his starving eyes for his very own slice of American pie / a sensible decision / I've got to write another chapter." The domesticated, boring and unemotional is a constant recurring villain in today's Cursive songs.
This one reminds me of a light version of Inmates from his other band, The Good Life. He begins: "I've been thinking I should write some kind of love song for you / To prove to you I do." Yet, for a lovely serenade, it's actually a little weirdly self-involved, but I think Kasher realizes the irony. While it starts off recalling how they met at an Omaha bus stop, it suddenly morphs into a song about himself: "Writer's are selfish, writer's are egotists / I'm afraid I'm as bad as it gets / I keep forgetting to censor the truth / That's why I gotta write some kind of love song for you."
It's at this point you realize, it's not a love song for her. It's a song about having to write a song for her; the pressures and expectations of love and monogamy. Even though it has a sweet and pretty exterior, there's the dark, unspoken and unhappy undercurrent. They adopt a stray dog, and he sings with a nod at the chains of loving ownership:
You brought home a dog you found in the alley
You said, can we keep her?
I said, what kind of man would I be?
So you bought her a collar and called her family.
For good measure, the song ends sweetly and lovingly: "We're a family of strays, but together we've been found."
5. Cold Love
This is the single off the album, and probably the most upbeat number. If you've been following the narrative arc of the album so far, the relationship seems to be the following: Disenchanted man-boy, afraid of his dead-end life, moves to California with girl. He does his best to be in love, but...
"Maybe we're getting older, maybe our hearts are beating slower / Maybe we got tired of the same old dessert / We grew up in a world of 31 flavors / Maybe we're just tired of this vanilla existence." Yeah, I know, Baskin Robbins metaphor. It's a little silly, but musically it's beautiful and, hey, it gets the point across. He is more frank here about exactly what he feels the trappings of monogamy are. It's almost boldly obvious and telling, but you might be too busy singing along to care.
6. Surprise, Surprise
A creepy, minimalist break-up song in the style of horror film tension. At what is basically the halfway point of the album, the relationship in the narrative has fallen apart. "Surprise, surprise / you're leaving me," sings Kasher, and we are meant to feel like this is the inevitable point for all couples and all forms of people being in the vicinity of each other. Feel good? Short, dissonant, and depressing.
7. There Must Be Something I've Lost
When I said that Kasher feels more earnest than any modern songwriter I know of, this is what I mean. While Patrick Wolf and Xiu Xiu will be honest about child abuse experiences in their songs, that is a kind of dramatic weight that is worthy of honesty. Kasher, on the other hand, feels honest about everything, even the completely undramatic and mundane. Case in point: this song, which is about pining after high school exes and looking them up on the internet, late at night, in pathetic, pitiful desperation. "It's just typical male conquest / you know the world don't revolve around your prick," he sings to no one but himself.
8. Bad, Bad Dreams
Musically, this sounds like something out of "Happy Hollow." It's the trumpets and invoking of religion that do it. Writers often chronicle their dark, inner thoughts, which takes a certain amount of courage. Here, Kasher takes it in a different direction: Dark, inner dreams that give him guilty pleasure. These are thoughts that he doesn't necessarily control, but enjoys anyway. "Gotta see a priest, gotta see a priest, gotta go to confession," is pretty much the only line I need to quote for you to get the idea. Trumpets and panic go so well together.
9. No Fireworks
Not enough cynicism about love for you yet? Have 4 more minutes of it! In fairness, it is a pretty good song. But it feels like it's the same note as the entire album. "I thought love was supposed to fall from our hearts / I can't feel it / No fireworks, no twinkle and stars / No lump in my throat." I don't know if it falls in, chronologically, to the narrative arc of the album. But it's about a hopelessly out of love relationship (at least from the male perspective.) They go so far as to revisit the spot where they met and -- nothing. Again, there is no greater enemy to the characters of Tim Kasher than the big, empty nothingness and its many forms: death, loneliness, mundane lives and empty imagination.
10. The Prodigal Husband
This is my favorite song on the album. It shows experiments in instrumentation, utilizing a harp instead of any of the other school band tools he's been playing up in his last few albums. The storytelling is sharp, although it throws rhyming out the window sometimes. You won't notice. My favorite lines:
The sun hung solemn at noon
as you stormed through our bedroom
"It's not our bedroom," you cried.
"You gave that up
when you chose those other beds to lie in.
And lie you did,
how did you weasel your way back into me?
No, you can't come back.
I hate myself when you're around."
Yet for the searing talk the speaker just got, he is still persistent, even in denial, about getting back with his ex-partner. He picks out a minor detail about what she is wearing to focus on as hope that he can come back, but the outside listeners know the truth that it doesn't have to mean anything. The Game of Monogamy is about one relationship, over time, going through the motions: doubt, some verisimilitude of love, routine, break-up, and the post-break-up attempt at stirring shit up. The gentle delusion gives way to the opus closing, titled simply:
Some of the melody from the opener returns here, as if the song had been playing underneath the album the whole time, and it is picking up just now to wrap it up. It listens like a flashback to the barren life of a married couple: "Most nights we've been staying in / practicing our monogamy," he sings to nice mini crescendos. It infuses drama to the most plain, vernacular lines. The portrait is all about unadventurous marriages, and of course, that involves lack of sex: "We sleep different hours / and the weekends you're so tired / now it's birthdays and anniversaries."
He sums up the whole album pretty well with this lyric: "So we're stuck in a few ruts / My independence is all but shriveled up / I guess that's just the price we pay / for monogamy."
This is probably the most musically interesting song on the album. There's a synth-based breakdown in the middle of it, and it ends on this euphoric, cult-like chanting of "monogamy." It evokes images of temples and worship, and it's easy to imagine society cultivating this concept, institution, and all the dreams that are supposed to come with it.
There is a story being told from song to song, but it doesn't get resolved by this track. The last real narrative we get is the couple, the players in the game, are invited to a wedding anniversary dinner of their friends. As they sit, someone thinks - it's not clear if it's the players, or the long married couple - "How do we keep up this charade?" That's as close to answers as you, the listener, are going to get. It's all the pay off available.
But maybe it isn't supposed to wrap up so neatly. If Tim Kasher is as earnest as I arrogantly think he is, then maybe the real life correlation hasn't wrapped up. In any case, the objective is portray a real life story, and those rarely tie up or pay off. They just kind of die off.