By 1997, the shine of grunge was wearing off and a new crop of bands was taking music in a more emotionally honest direction. Whether or not their members realized it, they were building the foundation for what would come to be labeled as emo. 1997: The Year Emo Broke explores the albums that drove this burgeoning genre that year.
Tim Kasher has spent over 20 years strangling audiences with grief. In 1997, as critics were starting to throw the term "emo" around to describe the varied sounds of bands like At The Drive-In, Get Up Kids, Braid, and Jawbreaker, Kasher's band Cursive made a darker, more severe version of the budding genre. Their discordant song structure elevated them above the fray. Cursive's 1997 full-length debut, Such Blinding Stars for Starving Eyes, exercised shrill, melodic dissonance with a penchant for wallowing heartbreak. From the minute the record begins with "After the Movies," Tim Kasher's garbled screams border on melodramatic. Yet the misery seems anything but contrived.
The overbearing dispiritedness almost made Cursive a tough sell outside of a niche market: the emo elites. Lyrics like "Love as fragile as a wine glass… It should have been forever" bedeck this emotionally exhausting, yet haunting debut. The punk songwriting structure at the core of many of Cursive's contemporaries is absent in Such Blinding Stars for Starving Eyes. This more volatile sound allowed their torment to come off as credulous, not the mall-ready anguish that would soon overtake the emo world. But like a chef with a secret ingredient, resisting the urge to overuse it proved difficult for Cursive. It was too much of a good thing. The album, as a whole, lacks nuance. They were kids, after all.
Their musical journey began as the much-revered Slowdown Virginia, a band responsible for setting the tone for the Omaha scene. Shortly after their breakup, Kasher, bassist Matt Maginn, and guitarist Steve Pedersen reformed as Cursive, with the addition of drummer Clint Schnase. After two EP releases in a straightforward post-punk style, Cursive released Such Blinding Stars for Starving Eyes in 1997 on Crank! Records.
Their evolved sound on the debut full-length saw Cursive take steps to find a deeper dynamic within their music. However, to listen to these 11 tracks in one sitting can be physically debilitating. Not because of lack of virtuosity, but because they're emotionally taxing, with little relief. There's a point when it all starts to sort of blur. With no respite from Kasher's soul-crushing lyrics—coupled with the complex rhythms and guitar work—this record drags the listener down a maelstrom of sorrow. Burrowing in the agony of the album comes with little payoff; there is no catharsis. But had Cursive not allowed itself to see how far down the rabbit hole it could go, maybe the band would have never known what it'd be capable of. Those deep, dark moments serve great purpose on their later, more fulfilled albums like Domestica and The Ugly Organ.
Perhaps one of the more discernible songs on the album is "Ceilings Crack," wherein Kasher makes lyrics like "I know I've been an asshole to you" commit to the listener's memory. On "Retirement," his negative outlook about growing old is accompanied by one of the most effective "quiet/loud" tracks on the album. "There's no slot machines past the pearly gates," he screams as the grating guitars intentionally stray from one another causing the kind of discomfort that keeps masochistic listeners coming back for more.
After Cursive's initial, critically tepid run from 1995 to 1998, and a year-long hiatus, the band returned in 1999 with a renewed artistic urgency. Along with associated acts like Bright Eyes and The Faint, they helped reshape the way people thought about Omaha, Nebraska, a town once mostly known for dry-aged steaks, TV dinners, and 311. They propelled Omaha and Saddle Creek Records to international renown.
Maturity helped the band to learn when to pull back on the gloom. Instead of waving it around like a novelty, Cursive found how to use despair effectively, pulling back at just the right moments to keep the audience hooked. They learned that just because you can, doesn't always mean you should. Channeling Robert Smith, Pavement, and their own Great Plains-ennui, they had a recipe for displaying misery in an uncontrived way. But before they could make an album worthy of being deemed a masterpiece, they had to learn to control their untried fervor.
These are lessons they had yet to grasp on Such Blinding Stars for Starving Eyes. Yet even through all their evolution and success, Cursive never made readily accessible music. At their poppiest, they always required effort from the listener. And the fact that their audience is still there 20 years after their debut is exactly why Cursive was and continues to be one of the greatest success stories from this class of emo pioneers.
Even with all that Cursive and Kasher have accomplished musically since their early days, Such Blinding Stars for Starving Eyes, still holds up as a great record 20 years later. Like in life, bands mature and learn how to harness their emotions. And though Cursive had yet to learn this at the time, their debut is an intensely complicated and involved album, and a great start to an over 20-year career that still finds them playing sold-out theaters across the world.
Eddie Cepeda is the founder of Mother of Pearl Vinyl and a writer in New York City. Follow him on Twitter.