At first glance, Terrible Human Beings, The Orwells’ latest album, has all the makings of a cult classic. The title is shameless, the cover art screams 90’s alternative with its platinum-blonde Uma Thurman look-a-like, and the track list promises chaos with songs like “They Put A Body In The Bayou” and “M.A.D.” All of these elements imply an album worthy of classification as the Pulp Fiction of contemporary indie rock: violent and weird. Terrible Human Beings, however, falls upsettingly short.
Despite the potential demonstrated on their debut album, Remember When, The Orwells have yet to climb the ladder from wannabes to veritable punk-rockers. Terrible Human Beings may be their most sonically sophisticated album, but this refinement comes at a price; the album is terribly formulaic. “They Put A Body In The Bayou” begins the album with a well-crafted and respectably cohesive three minutes of intriguing unlawfulness. While Terrible Human Beings is initially attractive, its repetitiveness becomes clear by the third track. Ironically, the edgiest aspect of the album is this unintentional deception that occurs during the first five minutes.
The album’s lack of originality is accompanied by serious lyrical deficiencies. The Orwells desperately aspire towards Sex Pistols-level anarchy, yet are reluctant to give themselves over to the complete abandon necessary to achieve it. The aura they try to project on Terrible Human Beings feels commercial and inauthentic. The song “Heavy Head,” for instance, boasts an abstract antagonism which lacks a grounding in real social or political issues: “Dry-mouthed in the hot white sand, Duct-taped in a big white van, Put a bag over their heads, Cut a hole and their face turns red.” Lyrics like these come across as nothing more than superficially malicious and contribute to the album’s conceptual confusion. Ultimately, The Orwells’ lyrics betray them as the harmless suburban guys they were five years ago when they emerged from Chicago’s suburbia.
With today’s bountiful sociopolitical fodder, The Orwells had plenty of material for lyrical inspiration. Despite this, they skirt real issues and only make a weak, undeveloped attempt to comment on them music videos. The Orwells want to be angry—and maybe they are—but their lyrics don’t show it. Terrible Human Beings tries to be chilling, but won’t keep anyone up at night.
Despite this, there’s still enjoyment to be had in listening to the album. The band’s musicianship has progressed considerably since they were mere high schoolers recording Remember When, and Mario Cuomo’s vocals are as fearless and emotive and as always. The distortion and reverb on the track “Body Reprise” work effectively to break up the monotony of the rest of the album. However, it also makes the formula even more apparent when “Ring Pop” brings the listener back into the comforts of Cuomo’s harmless taunts and comfortable melodies.
Terrible Human Beings forgoes innovation for the safety of convention. If this is professional growth, it will have many wistful for The Orwell’s gritty and imperfect youth.
Voice’ s Choices: “Fry”, “Ring Pop”