Getting Back to Basics with Cursive

Speaking about Vitriola, the band’s eighth album, Tim Kasher reminds us that Cursive is not a solo project.

For the past twenty years, we’ve looked to Cursive for a steady output of literary post-hardcore—a particularly harsh storm of demented guitar, aggressive percussion, and on-again/off-again cello working adroitly against the impassioned Hazel Motes–sermons of frontman Tim Kasher. The vocalist’s brusquely introspective lyrics have increasingly evoked the image of an acoustic guitar–wielding troubadour showing up to the wrong practice space, and it’s primarily this incidental trend toward conceptual songwriting that shaped the lyrical content of the band’s latest record—their first since 2012’s I Am Gemini, Cursive’s most fully realized concept album to date. “We just wanted to go in the opposite direction,” Kasher explains of his band’s new LP. “I kinda stayed on myself as far as trying to avoid any of the pratfalls of becoming too heavily themed.”

The album in question is Vitriola, the group’s eighth record, and one that serves as a shockingly cohesive retrospective of everything they’ve released to date. In reuniting with drummer Clint Schnase (his first album with the group since 2006’s Happy Hollow) and appearing to be back “on” again with their cello (contributed by touring cellist Megan Siebe), Vitriola weaves nostalgically throughout the band’s back catalog, from the heaving Ugly Organ–esque “Pick Up the Pieces,” to the slithering reprises of “Ouroboros” recalling Happy Hollow, to the hellish red hue illuminating the record’s malicious undercurrent—notably characteristic of Mama, I’m Swollen. The only thing that really sets it apart from these records is a lack of narrative.

“I can really say with sincerity that the last thing we want to do is rehash something we’ve already done,” says Kasher. “It’s just of no interest to any of us. If that was somebody’s suggestion I would just as soon not do the record at all.” Instead, he chalks up the familiar feel of Vitriola to their reunion with Schanse, as well as the time they’d all recently spent listening to their first two records, which the band just rereleased via the new label they’ve founded, 15 Passenger. “Spending that much time with those earlier records I wrote when I was, like, twenty-one, I can tell that they had an impact on me, because I kind of respect what I was doing back then and I wanted to get that feeling again.”

Kasher describes the band’s reversion to previous incarnations of Cursive as “inevitable,” offering a definition of what a rock band should be that contrasts with the common auteurist perception of him and his early-’00s Saddle Creek peers, who include Bright Eyes, The Faint, and Rilo Kiley. “Anyone who gets the impression that, ‘Oh, Tim’s the songwriter of this band,’ or, ‘Brandon Flowers is The Killers,’ or something like that…there’s just so much more to it. I hear Clint all over this record. What he brought from behind the drum set—that dude really shifts the sound.” It’s worth noting here that Conor Oberst, Todd Fink, and Jenny Lewis are among the chorus of voices heard in the unforgettable ten-minute outro to 2003’s Ugly Organ, a dense album that never could have worked as a solo endeavor.

“Anyone who gets the impression that, ‘Oh, Tim’s the songwriter of this band,’ or, ‘Brandon Flowers is The Killers,’ or something like that…there’s just so much more to it.” — Tim Kasher

As for Kasher’s contribution to Vitriola, his lyrics and quivering vocals betray an anxiety habitual of his work, which additionally includes his long-running side-project, The Good Life, a more recent solo career, and, most recently, a directorial debut film. An economics-centric political frustration runs throughout the record (seemingly half the lyrics on “Life Savings” are just an increasingly scornful enunciation of “money”) alongside a personal awareness of aging—a yin and yang seemingly addressed in the opening “Free to Be or Not to Be You and Me”: “To live is to be in schism.” When I ask him if there’s any connection between the album’s two most prominent concerns, he laughs. “I imagine there are. I don’t have an answer, I guess.”

In talking it out, though, Kasher perhaps inadvertently explains the implicit unifying theme as being a sort of gratitude for surviving twenty years on an inconsistent musician’s paycheck while our country’s billionaires have very publicly been becoming even richer during the current presidential administration. “I’ve certainly been fortunate enough with the music career, which is totally fitting through a pinhole. I really respect that and appreciate it, but I also feel similar anxieties as I did when I was twenty as far as never really reaching some kind of comfort level.” He concludes, “Every year is a question mark and I’m just not sure if this is the year I’m not gonna get through. I guess I still feel like a kid who’s waiting to find out what I’m gonna do when I grow up.”

Regarding Vitriola’s politics, Kasher clarifies that much of the Trump-inspired ire was carefully weeded out of the final product. “Who wants that?” he asks. “I don’t want that. We’re all exhausted.” Instead, he favored a more multifaceted portrait of the times: “I did try to inject some kind of optimism into the record,” he confesses, despite closer “Dystopian Lament”’s sharp contrast to the extended outro of his close friends’ repeated reassurance that “the worst is over” fifteen years ago on Organ. “But I’m comfortable with writing in this way because it’s just one facet. I don’t think that if someone’s writing a horror movie they can be accused of writing a happy ending.”

Though Vitriola can’t quite claim a happy ending (“I used to fall for ancestry / Now I know we’re fucked from birth,” Kasher laments on “Lament” over eerie guitar atmospherics), the record feels remarkably of its time, even if it wasn’t necessarily the direct result of its caustic place in history. “Who knows if it is a good time?” Kasher responds when I ask him why now’s the right moment for a new Cursive album. “I can’t claim to know that.” Likely unintentional, his final word on the subject confirms his inability to decide the future of his band alone. FL

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