On Terrible Human Beings, the Orwells temper the brashness of their 2014 breakthrough, Disgraceland. Throughout, the Chicago garage-rock revivalists harness their considerable energy and wield it with more precision. In tandem with the reining in of their signature thematic focus on debauched recklessness with a shift toward inward reflection about the consequences of those actions, the band refines their previous lo-fi aesthetic—composed largely of Mario Cuomo’s wailing vocals buried under squalls of guitar—with smoother production, a wider array of tempos, and a broader vocal range.
The one exception is the album’s rowdy 90-second lead single, “Buddy,” a tribute to a one-night stand that, through Cuomo’s sharp rasp, hints at the band’s indebtedness to the Pixies. That influence is directly acknowledged on “Black Francis,” which reveals a far more self-aware, even self-deprecating side of the Orwells, as they paint themselves as bluffing posers compared to the likes of the Pixies’s frontman. Most often when Cuomo sings about booze and sex, it’s from a more contemplative viewpoint: On “Last Call (Go Home),” he ponders what it is about himself that leaves a girl at a bar unimpressed at his attempts to woo her. The band, too, is more regretful than ever, as on “Double Feature,” wherein Cuomo ruminates on how taking a different path in life—becoming a doctor or a lawyer—could’ve kept him out of trouble.
Which isn’t to say that the band has lost its swagger. In fact, Terrible Human Beings’s most memorable tracks thrum with an unhinged sense of mayhem, the catchiest hooks reserved for the most over-the-top imagery. “They Put a Body in the Bayou” delivers a heady blend of swirling psychedelia and fuzzed-out rock that struts with the kind of slick self-assuredness that pairs well with the Secret Service agent motif that the band employs for the song’s music video. The songwriting grows even more infectiously outlandish as the Orwells head out into the desert in “Heavy Head.” Over squealing guitar, Cuomo sings of being kidnapped in a van and driven out into the sun-scorched wilderness, where he tells his captors they might as well decapitate him in the sand, wrap his head in an Easter basket, and place it on his mother’s bed.
Rather than saturate Terrible Human Beings with these thrilling, if grotesque, excesses, the Orwells use them sparingly, which strengthens their impact and punches up the flavor of an otherwise measured album. Though this may not exactly be a coming-of-age album, themes of increasing discernment persist throughout, most notably on “Vacation,” as Cuomo questions the band’s past antics (“Could be a better way to right these wrongs/Than drinking heavily and playing songs”), and on “Creatures,” where their hard-partying friends are seen as soulless dead-ends. This heightened sense of self-reflection and embrace of disenchantment over unbridled debauchery and bluster marks the evolution of the Orwells into far shrewder musicians.