BY PARKER KLYN
The World Is a Beautiful Place & I Am No Longer Afraid to Die. What an instantly affecting band name, the kind of title that only a band without pretense could have. If I were to venture a guess, the members of the Connecticut band might not be content with that name anymore, as its implications, namely suicide, are topics that TWIABP has explored in-depth. In recent years, that final clause has been dropped, leaving simply The World Is a Beautiful Place. Even that sentiment, however, is called into question with their newest album, “Always Foreign.” It’s clear that the many men and women that make up the band have become disillusioned with stories of many injustices within American life, and with “Always Foreign,” they make telling those stories their mission.
TWIABP’s previous record, 2015’s “Harmlessness,” is an essential landmark in alternative music’s emo revival. It combined the linear song structures of post-rock with the songwriting sensibility of pop-punk, added passionate, heartfelt vocals and lyrics and wrapped it all up in a nice indie rock package. Dense, seven-minute storytelling feats stood next to bite-sized moments of pop perfection, and that formula repeats itself on “Always Foreign.” But where “Harmlessness” focused on mental health, “Always Foreign” becomes far more political and literal.
“Faker” is an immediate highlight, one that is harsh in its cross-examination of privileged life in the United States. Muted, twinkly guitar creates a soft bed on the atmospheric track. “Keep telling yourself there’s nothing wrong with this place,” lead singer David Bello sings. Then, the line “If there’s a Hell, it’s ready and waiting for you” segues into a beat switch, as Bello’s soft coos become yells.
“I’m sorry for being sorry / That cause of anxiety,” Bello cries on “Gram.” The song tackles a modern issue that few bands have attempted: America’s opioid crisis. They weave a tale of exactly how these drugs ruin lives and homes, and the song’s structure – a slow, patient build – mirrors the gradual escalation from medication to addiction. When a character’s father gets 20 years in jail as a result of his addiction, the band affirms just how twisted the way many view addiction is: “This should never have been a crime.”
The frustration and sadness that permeates “Always Foreign” doesn’t stop there. “Marine Tigers,” the album’s climactic moment, is saturated with tenseness. It spans a wide range of topics, but two stand out: the unbelievable inequality that comes with capitalism (“Making money is horrible”), and the unforgivable xenophobia that the average American exhibits towards our fellow people. The lyrical punches of “Can you still call it a country / if all the states are broken? Can you still call it a business / if all you do is steal?” are among the most impactful I’ve heard all year. Even the band’s musical touches, like dissonant, blurting trumpets meant to evoke a twisted Mariachi band, add to the anger and frustration that the band obviously feels.
“Always Foreign”’s music is distinctly TWIABP, and it comes with the same quirks, both good and bad, that we’ve come to expect from the band. Sliding synth leads punctuate the instrumentals of the album’s more pop-oriented songs, and intricate basslines occasionally lead the mix. Each song sounds influenced by a different band: Brand New on “Hilltopper,” American Football on “Infinite Steve,” Elliott Smith on “For Robin.” Overall, however, the sound is very uniform.
TWIABP’s music always contains little quirks that I’d change. The drums sometimes get washed out in intricate production, and punchier percussion might lead to more impactful music. “Harmlessness” prominently featured fantastic female vocals from Katie Dvorak; she seems under-utilized here. Finally, there isn’t as much of a post-rock influence on “Always Foreign” as there has been on previous records, and for me, that was one of the band’s biggest selling points.
There’s not a lot of lyrical treasure to uncover on this record. TWIABP aren’t as in-your-face and immediate as artists like Run the Jewels or G.L.O.S.S., and they don’t have the elegance or deftness of someone like Father John Misty. This leaves the band in a somewhat awkward middlebrow position, and that manifests itself in little ways throughout the record. Turns of phrase that don’t sound quite right and clumsy melodies sometimes result from these lyrical decisions, but that’s not necessarily a negative: they only add to the narrative that these are angry, frustrated, deeply felt songs.
“Always Foreign,” more than anything, is an anxious record. Tragedy and strife abound, from the individual (the protagonist on “For Robin” dies in a drunk driving crash) to the societal (immigrants are “like oil in an ocean” in America). Even with that sadness, The World Is a Beautiful Place manages to bring hope and positivity simply by using their platform to share these stories. “There’s nothing wrong with kindness,” Bello affirms. Sometimes social justice is as simple as that.