Tim Kasher may’ve left the plains of the Midwest for Montana by way of L.A., but his pencil-sharp focus on the pangs of domesticity remains the consistent, driving force behind his songwriting. Not that a move out west necessitates a topical evolution, or that marriage hasn’t been tackled with brutally honest force in Hollywood before, but I’d speculated that Kasher’s sojourn might invite a narrative shift in his work, as if he’d said all there is to say about the false hope of romantic love. I was wrong. But, not completely.
Yes, The Game of Monogamy is conceptually a scathing, doubtful, near-mocking account of the common commitment made between one man and one woman. (Sound familiar?) Lyrically, though, Kasher’s screenwriting abilities are paying off in droves: Unlike the vaguely drawn, obtuse men and women of his earlier work, the characters on this record put on a performance that unfolds over the course of an album, at once so in love with the prospect of a lifetime of togetherness and later resentful that they’d ever met.
The record begins with a bittersweet string arrangement that gives way to harp and oboe, all creating a lamenting tension that’s not unlike the onset of a dramatic film. (I’ll do my best to keep the cinematic analogies to a minimum, but it’s clear Kasher meant for the record to have a filmic cadence). Though “Monogamy Overture”, with its Sufjan-like grandiosity, sets us up to expect a more finessed affair than the intelligent brashness of Cursive or the clean, simple lines of The Good Life, “A Grown Man” follows with some combination of the two. It’s a predictable rant against the cage of adult responsibilities set amongst raucous horns, fuzzy guitars, and propulsive drums that’s a bit of a letdown coming off of the glacial intro, but the ensuing tracks more than redeem this feeling; they make sense of it.
“I’m Afraid I’m Gonna Die Here” starts off jubilantly, though not without a tinge of remorse, as its trumpets and breezy, jangly guitars set the stage for some of the most penetrating lyrics on the record. (This sentiment is, of course, relative considering how rife this collection is with solid prose). Kasher sings, “Love makes you lazy/You don’t ask questions anymore/You settle into the furniture/collecting cobwebs on the porch,” before he hints that the only way his character can save himself is to “write another chapter” before it’s too late. This quiet desperation is articulated once more in “No Fireworks”, wherein orchestral swells and morose keys back Kasher as he bellows, “I thought love was supposed to spill from our hearts,” as man and wife struggle to comprehend what the songwriter might suggest is the inevitable numbness of monogamous commitment. As on Cursive’s Ugly Organ, the drunken, dissonant sound of these songs could at times suggest a deficit of seriousness, but that would be a gross misunderstanding of the truth Kasher’s laboring to convey. If anything, the musical unease present alongside an otherwise vibrant chamber-pop sound is a subconscious translation of marital unrest, the crazed, unspeakable anxiety that torments all partners at one time or another. For its part, the brief, disorienting “Surprise, Surprise” documents this feeling brilliantly, as well.
The strongest songs on The Game of Monogamy are “Strays”, “There Must Be Something I’ve Lost”, “The Prodigal Husband”, and the closer, “Monogamy”. Just four songs into the record, “Strays” throws a spare wrench into the fatalist theme you’d expect to comprise the whole collection based on “A Grown Man”. Instead, it’s an overture to a former lover that comes off as an argument for monogamy: “We’re a family of strays, but, together we’ve been found.” The earnestness isn’t inconsistent. It’s speaking to the same regret that resurfaces in “The Prodigal Husband”, when a man pleads with his wife for renewal in a way that doesn’t feel jaded in the slightest. Kasher, like any good writer, understands that the grass always being greener doesn’t always portend an elevated sense of happiness. Typically, it invites the exact opposite.
Positioned just after its mid-section, “There Must Be Something I’ve Lost” is the record’s crisis act, depicting a man staring at his former classmates in his high school yearbook as he admits, “I want to have sex with all of my old girlfriends again,” over a wilting piano, acoustic guitar, woodwinds, and strings. Here, and on the heartbreaking “Monogamy”, Kasher recalls his old friend Conor Oberst, which is a positive when you consider the fellow Nebraskan’s penchant for storytelling.
On this, his first solo album, Tim Kasher not only went to profound lengths to lyrically articulate the underlying complexity of coupledom, he also attempted to create a soundtrack that accompanied this misery and confusion. He enlisted Patrick Newbery, who plays keys and trumpet in Cursive, to assist with the arrangements and production, as well as to perform on the album. Matt Maginn (also of Cursive) contributed bass parts and Minus the Bear’s Erin Tate played drums on a few songs. The sweeping, melancholic strings and woodwinds were even performed by the Glacier National Symphony.
But, while the results of these collaborations are undoubtedly impressive, their worth is derived more from their support of Kasher’s character dilemmas than anything else. I’ll admit some disappointment in this regard — for me, he’s yet to top Domestica, musically — but Kasher has never been this lyrically poignant and cohesive. The album’s themes, dialogue, and settings all flow naturally, positioning the listener in the thick of the male mind, tugging at our realities whether we want him to or not. Perhaps, then, his inclination to write for the silver screen isn’t so strange after all.