The Social Animals’ debut album Bad Things is a work of broken beauty, an elegant expression of chaotic emotion. With their graceful collision of jittery rhythms, moody synth tones, and luminous guitar lines, the Duluth, Minnesota-bred band match their fine spun melodies with idiosyncratic turns of phrase, crafting each lyric with a precision of detail that makes every moment feel almost painfully real.
Bad Things takes its title from its propulsive lead single, a track inspired by what Clark refers to as “a Midwestern version of Murphy’s Law.” “In the Midwest, I think we’re bred to fear that anytime something good happens to you, something horrible will happen very quickly afterward. Probably a side effect of the long winters,” he explains. At turns tender and anthemic, “Bad Things” also reveals Clark’s talent for articulating anguish with bracing specificity (sample lyric: “You don’t get used to an empty room/You just get used to hearing voices running over all the choices you have made”).
All throughout Bad Things, Social Animals thread their songs with equal measures of sincerity and sardonic self-awareness: the frenetically catchy “Get Over It” turns self-talk into a gloriously muddled mantra (“Get underground, get lost, get found, get over it”), while “Something to Keep Me Awake” arrives as a sprawling new-wave pop number spiked with political commentary (“It’s hard to watch the news today without a Xanax bar”). And on “Together,” the band brings bright textures and heavenly harmonies to a quietly devastating meditation on loss. “It’s about someone knowing you to your core. The bad and the good. Even though they know you at your worst, they still have the ability to remind you that you have positive qualities in there, too. But someone can only break your fall so many times before it ends up breaking them too,” notes Clark.
In each song on Bad Things, The Social Animals draw from the kinetic chemistry they’ve built since forming in their early 20s. Originally from the northern Minnesota town of Cloquet, Clark first crossed paths with Petersen thanks to the barely-existent local music scene. “There were basically two or three people who played music in the whole city, and Tony was one of them. And he happened to be really good,” Clark says. The two next brought Smith into the fold and then found Whittet in a moment of strange serendipity. “Roger worked at a liquor store, and I went in really hungover one morning, and he was just sitting there playing bass,” Clark recalls. “I asked if he wanted to join my band, and he said yes and played a show with us that night, and then just never quit.”
Not long after getting together, The Social Animals began playing nearly 200 self-booked shows a year. “We had no direction whatsoever,” says Clark. “We just wanted to play music all the time and have fun doing it, which meant that the first four years of the band we were mostly just playing for drinks.” As they steadily earned attention for their impassioned live performance, The Social Animals eventually landed a spot on the Rise Records band roster.
As Clark points out, many of the songs on Bad Things were sparked from the countless lyrical scraps he’s amassed over the years. “I’m always listening to what people are saying and writing stuff down—especially when people misspeak and accidentally say something cool, or when older people talk in these adages from another time,” Clark says. Naming fellow Midwestern poet-troubadour John Prine among his favorite lyricists, he also mines much inspiration from the short stories of Raymond Carver. “I love how raw his prose is, and how he gives you these little glimpses into people’s lives that are so mundane but also so heartbreaking,” says Clark.
In bringing a similar complexity to the making of Bad Things, The Social Animals ultimately offer up a selection of songs both deeply melancholy and unexpectedly transcendent. “I think there’s an overall sense of loneliness on this album—which might seem like a negative thing to leave people with, but I don’t think that has to be the case,” says Clark. “In my experience, happy music doesn’t necessarily make you feel happy; it actually does the opposite a lot of the time. Hopefully, hearing these songs gives people some kind of release and ends up being as cathartic for them as it was for me.”