Meet The Orwells, the living embodiment of rock music as an asylum for every dysfunctional screw-up and half-wit who can’t quite manage to reach the status of “human being.” This analogy isn’t meant as an insult or dismissal, but as praise, because rather than pay hollow lip-service to some hypothetical social evolution or revolution that no manipulation of sound could ever prophesize without hitching itself onto the exercise of bona fide physical and political power, their sophomore record — and major-label debut — is at least honest, in the sense that it’s nothing more than another unapologetic apology for the typical rock & roll band’s pathological inability to enter the mainstream of human civilization as responsible, card-carrying adults. Every single rabble-rousing anthem on Disgraceland is tied over with at least one admission of inadequacy, awkwardness, and fallibility, and in the context of 11 scruffy, crude thumpers made for and by rejects of the 21st century, this self-prostration and flagellation before a world the band has no hope of accessing couldn’t be more just.
Starting off with “Southern Comfort,” and despite whatever the pre-packaged labels of “contagious, youthful energy” might claim, the album is essentially a roll-call of lead singer Mario Cuomo’s defects, foibles, and failures, and in marrying these to zippy melodies and bouncy rhythms, it effectively functions to exonerate his ilk of the moral imperative to change, by mulishly insinuating that such faults result in some good after all, in the excitement and jubilation of music, which in this instance amounts to the song’s obliviously carefree lead and innocently harmonized chorus. As such, a verse like “I can’t walk/ And I can’t dance” is no longer a contrite or shamed admission, but rather a perverse, artificially-redeemed boast, and in alliance with the pelted drums and uppity guitars, it bellows rock’s status as a kind of cultural sick note or medical certificate, as a spurious justification or excuse for your flaws, one that demonstrates that even if these deficiencies prevent you from having enough of your shit together to approach someone in a bar without looking ridiculous, they can at least be made to dance. Or in the case of The Orwells, they can be at least be rehabilitated as marketable commodities.
And it goes on, because with dribbly stompers like “The Righteous One” and “Dirty Sheets,” Disgraceland also highlights rock’s niche as the world’s most elaborate and overblown ritual of supplication, of begging for pity, forgiveness, and ultimately reintegration back into the fold of humanity — but of course in a special position that doesn’t necessitate personal reform. In “Dirty Sheets,” Cuomo enters the screeching fray with “Drink all night/ I’m such a mess/ There’ something missing in my chest,” and together with the “But it’s not fair/ Don’t cut your hair/ It’s not nice to stare” bellyache of “The Righteous One,” this confession and its powered groove serve to rally the listener behind the Illinoisians, to elicit the kind of sympathy and indulgence that would be much less forthcoming if their skewy destructiveness and inept maladjustment had been self-pityingly exposed outside of a musical or artistic venue.
You could also say something similar apropos “Bathroom Tile Blues,” where the driving chugs and plaintive tunings of Dominic Corso and Matt O’ Keefe’s guitars underwrite the lines “I never did you good/ Like mother said I would/ Just an empty shell inside”, and where crude vistas of wasted nights in hotel rooms work to inspire the mercy and compassion that will presumably allow a certain kind of public to accept The Orwells as genuinely troubled “voices” rather than as a work-shy bunch of misfits clamoring for a visit from the Dog Whisperer. More interestingly, this unconscious attempt to use their juvenile strains of jangly velocity as a means of regaining admittance into our wider society as colorful dunces encounters a neat homology in the recurrence of lyrics dealing with Cuomo’s troubles in the romance department. Every song that passes through his dealings with the female sex, from the unrepentant haste of “Let It Burn” to the tipsy sentimental waltz of “Norman,” is a call for his lady admirers to accept him as he is, warts and all, and to confirm his ability to write endearingly jejune pop rock as an exemption from that tiresome duty not to be an asshole. And even the bare fact of delivering any kind of musical overture to a woman is itself already an encrypted way of pleading, entreating and abasing yourself, insofar as it tacitly admits that as a naked human being you probably don’t possess enough redeeming features to win another’s affection without having to decorate yourself in smoke and mirrors.
Both of these supposedly redemptive strands reach their zenith in the latter half of Disgraceland, with album highlight “Who Needs You” representing a simultaneously defiant and melancholic tirade against the US and the pressure its institutions exert on starry-eyed deadheads to become taxpaying Christian soldiers, and then later with its runner-up “Blood Bubble,” a death-ballad that recounts how Cuomo drove one of his exes to a suicide attempt. If there were ever any doubt that Disgraceland, The Orwells, and rock music itself function as one big sanatorium or (non-)remedial shelter for the socially impaired, then “Who Needs You” dissolves it at a stroke, with its naive, amped lullabies and its cry of “You better join the army/ I said no thank you/ Dear old Uncle Sam.” This cry, the song’s title, and the recurring avowals of how we should “burn that flag” and “toss your bullets” superficially position the idealistic number as some kind of final withdrawal or severance from a repressive and irremediable society, but they’re undermined by Cuomo’s impassioned appeals for accommodation within that very same society, by the repeated prayer, “You better help the children/ Let them have some fun,” which in conjunction with the recalcitrant calls to civil disobedience and non-participation can be read only as a petition for privileged accommodation, for a place where The Orwells have every right but no responsibilities, or rather where they can have their cake and eat it too.
But this fatal inconsistency is perfectly in harmony with the band’s image as lovable blockheads and kooks, with a singer who never leaves home without his faithful Chicago Bulls jersey and who occasionally treats us to instructive pelvic exercises. And while jaded prudes like me would dismiss the quintet for perpetuating the old lie that your failings and imperfections always find their niche, their acceptance, and their reward in the end, there’s nonetheless something to be said for their fevered slant on bromidic rock moves. Of course, there’s nothing remotely innovative or original on Disgraceland — there’s little stylistic variation away from its “route-one” and “mid-paced serenade” templates, and the LP deflates toward its end (despite the two above-mentioned highlights) — but it’s still largely enjoyable on its own modest terms. Cuts like the thrashed “Gotta Get Down” or the swaggering “Dirty Sheets” are built with a finely-tuned ear for dynamics, accelerating through a range of gears en route to forcible climaxes, and they’re capped by a vocalist who can drawl lawlessly like the messed-up loser he purports to be. Moreover, in representing a well-worn genre of music that allegedly affords hopeless castoffs a gilded hospital ward, so long as they appear earnest about their plight for the envious and sententious masses, The Orwells and the very much earnest Disgraceland will be invigorating solace for anyone who gets a kick out of deadbeat rock musicians and the illusions they provide of refuge and reprieve.