Condemned to be free

With their new record, Cursive returns to the relatable, existential misery that made them so beloved

Tony Bonacci

In his memoir, Nothing to be Afraid Of, novelist Julian Barnes immediately confides: “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”

Throughout this meditation on mortality, Barnes laments the death of God in our increasingly secular world, because even as God’s executioners, we still long for something to believe in, for something to inspire us, for something that will ease the pain of being so wretchedly, mortally human.

It’s a longing Tim Kasher can relate to.

The frontman for indie rock outfit Cursive has made a career of publicly unspooling his relatable existential crises, often thematically, focusing on the dissolution of a marriage (his marriage, with some dramatic accoutrements) for the band’s breakthrough record, Domestica, in 2000, or the meaning of art in 2003’s critically acclaimed The Ugly Organ.

It’s been six years since Cursive’s last album, I Am Gemini, a far-reaching concept album that explores the relationship between good and evil. But unlike the bulk of Cursive’s output, I Am Gemini is inaccessible, both musically and sometimes lyrically, requiring a 13-page booklet to lay out the characters for this kind-of-sort-of rock opera. The album, while interesting in fits and spurts and indicative of Kasher’s burgeoning interest in screenwriting, strays from the relatable everyday miseries that makes other Cursive albums so beloved.

Now there’s Vitriola, the band’s eighth studio album and a pleasant return to form — even if the subject matter is anything but pleasant.

Vitriola loosely examines burnout and dread in the age of Trump, without dropping names or engaging in too much finger-pointing. It also reunites the band with original drummer Clint Schnase and producer Mike Mogis, who worked on The Ugly Organ and, most recently, Cursive’s 2006 release, Happy Hollow. With Megan Seibe adding cello to the mix — the first strings on a Cursive album since The Ugly OrganVitriola finds the band in rare form.

Despite allusions to current political and social turmoil, at the core of the album is a human searching for meaning in a life that keeps reminding him there is no meaning, only living.

Because a real existential crisis has nothing to do with an elected government and everything to do with how we govern ourselves. As historian Robert Zaretsky argues, there are solutions to the crisis of Trump’s presidency — which we have seemingly collectively dubbed an existential threat — but there are no solutions to a true, Sartrean existential crisis, only more questions.

But sometimes — just sometimes — belief in God looks like a pretty good solution to the sucking void of emptiness that Kasher sometimes feels, and he occasionally misses God, a bit like Julian Barnes.

“Wouldn’t that be a fucking delight to just turn off my TV and not fucking care about anything anymore with it?” Kasher says over the phone recently. “You know what? Ignorance is bliss. I would love to continue being Catholic, and I can handle going to church every Sunday as long as I don’t have to think about what’s really going on. But I’m just… my entire life I’ve been somebody who’s been compelled to want to face the truth.”

Part of “the truth” is that Cursive makes a damn good record when Kasher gets out of his own way and lets loose with his emotions.

It’s also how Kasher avoids turning completely toward nihilism.

“I find the most happiness in the moment of writing and in completing whatever it is I happen to be working on,” he says. “So then what I write about tends to generally be about the existentialism. But it’s funny: I suppose in the very process of writing about it that’s kind of the way I help curb it for myself. We’re all looking for some sense of meaning. Even the very writing I’m doing, I recognize it’s totally meaningless but I do it because it’s the closest I can get to myself… to self-actualization, I guess.”

And he’s right, as far as Sartre or Camus or Zaretsky or Barnes could or can tell.

Existential crises — the real kind, the internal kind with no solutions — are necessary to living a meaningful life. The sheer dread of it all pushes us to see through the lies we tell ourselves about how life is supposed to be and finally see how life really is. It’s beautiful and ugly, not always in equal measure, and it’s probably — possibly… maybe — all we’ve got. 

As Sartre once famously said, we are condemned to be free.

On the Bill: Cursive — with Summer Cannibals, Campdogzz. 9 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 19, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St., Boulder. Tickets are $19-$20.

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