There’s an old adage, (mis)attributed to dozens of people, that holds that the more personal an artist’s work is, the more universal it then becomes. For a crash course in the truth at the kernel of that idea, then look no further than Cursive/The Good Life frontman Tim Kasher’s latest release, Middling Age.
Thoughtful and complex, Middling Age could reasonably be described as an anthology of musical essays, delivered by Kasher with a patient, languorous drawl that—in combination with the placid, often acoustic instrumentation—frequently evokes the feel of a tale around a campfire or a bedtime story. That is until you pay attention to the lyrics, and realize that when it comes to thematic content, pacification is far from the intent behind the album.
In just over 40 minutes, Middling Age takes us through an array of topics—religion and non-belief, lovers and ex-lovers, and life and its inexorable endpoint—with an inimitable mixture of wit, bluntness, and trepidation that makes these songs empathetic, provocative, and occasionally even a challenge to digest. The seemingly nonchalant demeanor with which Kasher puts forward concepts mired in stagnant nihilism and creeping existential dread gives the whole thing a somewhat otherworldly vibe—either spooky or dreamlike, depending both on the song and, frankly, where your own head’s at, too.
It’s a cerebral experience, with every track a conscious attempt to create a rewarding and comprehensive narrative with lyrics that demand concentration. “Whisper Your Death Wish,” for example, seems on the face of it to be a reckoning with one’s own mortality. But on closer inspection it could just as easily be about the death of a relationship. Other songs convey their message through humor, like “On My Knees,” which describes Kasher’s brushes with Christianity: “Went to Catholic school, I followed rules, found Jesus… / To be a terrifying presence of my life.”
In this sense, it might be more useful to view the album as a collection of poems that happen to have a minimal but tightly focused musical backing, rather than a set of pop songs. There are certainly songs on the album that employ instrumentation to richer effect—“The John Jouberts,” for example, which begins with the eerie ghost of a drumbeat that slowly builds up into an emotive climax, or “You Don’t Gotta Beat Yourself Up About It,” starting out as twinkling finger-picking that proceeds to rise and fall through a series of glowing, celestial layers. But not every song manages to soar in quite the same way. At times, it can feel like a bit of a missed opportunity, with Kasher’s gorgeous and terrifying lyrics slung over backing tracks that sound like sketches, not nearly as adventurous as their weighty lyrical content impel them to be.
At its best, however, Middling Age is gripping and completely immersive, a series of mediations on meaning and loss that manifests one moment as a sorrowful lament and the next as a flippant brushing off of the very idea of meaning in the first place. It’s a strong testament to Kasher’s capacity as a storyteller, even when the arrangements sometimes pales against the lofty lyrical standards. It’s not what you’d call comforting, but nor is it totally miserable—and, given Kasher’s wry yet measured delivery, that means it’s exactly where it’s supposed to be.
Label: 15 Passenger