“Here’s Your Future,” the first track on The Thermals’ 2006 album The Body, the Blood, the Machine, was one of those rare songs that just grabs you from its opening note and refuses to be ignored. The lyrics condensed the entire Bible into two and half minutes of snarky punk, and set the tone for the whole album. It’s the perfect opening track.
Now We Can See, The Thermals’ follow up to The Body, the Blood, the Machine, doesn’t have a “Here’s Your Future.” The songs don’t bludgeon you over the head. Instead, they work there way into the system, sounding pleasant enough on first listen, and slowly releasing their hooks and tentacles on subsequent spins. Some of the rougher edges – one of the group’s great charms – have been smoothed. There’s even an honest to God monster ballad halfway through. You could say that The Thermals have grown up, but in a musical sense that always sounds like an insult. It insinuates that a band has lost its sense of adventure. The Thermals have not gone soft; they’ve just tweaked their tone, adding a touch more melody and lyrical sincerity.
The ballad aside, most of the songs have the same razor blade guitars, snare heavy drums and sneakily rhythmic bass that Thermals fans are used to. Guitarist and singer Hutch Harris’ articulate sneer is still fond of singing in collective voice. On The Body, the Blood, the Machine, that voice focused on the cult-like nature of religion. It had a distinct resonance in the midst of the Bush era. Now We Can See is focused on water. Not necessarily an obvious allusion to our times, this record is more personal than political. Water can cleanse, and it can kill. It can wash away the past, and it can wash away years worth of grime to reveal things we thought long buried. Now We Can See is an album about coming to terms with these things, and deciding what to do about it. Like I said, a little on the grown up side.
In the opener “When I Died,” Harris sheds his skin, dons fins and swims out into the open ocean, until of course, he realizes he doesn’t have gills and drowns. The similarly titled “When I was Afraid” is the voice of someone who’s not sure if freedom from fear is all its cracked up to be. (“Fear was mine / fear was by my side / It kept me well / hell, it kept me alive“). The title track deals with the past. It takes on the idea that a bunch of cave dwelling murderers can change their ways, but that doesn’t make up for that fact that they were once cave dwelling murderers. “Yeah baby, we were savage / we existed to kill / Our history is damaged / at least it was a thrill,” Harris sings. “But now we can see / Now that our vision is strong / we don’t need to admit we were wrong.” They may not have been W. fans, but I can’t exactly see The Thermals enthusiastically chanting “Yes we can!” either.
The song “Now we can See” is a good example of the difference in The Thermals’ sound. It begins with a sing-songy chorus of “Oh-way-oh-woah”s sung by the entire band in unison. It’s even got handclaps. At first, the catchy pop-punk seems like an affront to the band’s garage ethos, until you remember that pop-punk was always an important part of The Thermals sound. It’s just a little more unabashed here. Similarly, songs like “We Were Sick” and “When we were Alive” straddle the line between the band’s older work and new direction, with pogoing rhythms paired with impossibly catchy melodies.
Harris’ preferred lyrical medium is allegory, but he gets explicit more than once on Now We Can See, with songs like “Liquid In, Liquid Out,” about that other kind of drowning—alcoholism. And there’s even “I Called Out Your Name,” which is something surprising from The Thermals: a real live love song.
The biggest change between Now We Can See and older Thermals work is the aforementioned power ballad in the middle of the record, “At the Bottom of Sea.” Calling it a “power ballad” conjures images of bloated hair bands, but “At the Bottom of the Sea” is actually a very pretty song; slow yet muscular and unmistakably building into the kind of song that inspires people to hold up lighters (or cell phones, as the kids do these days). In “At the Bottom of the Sea,” the narrator has been under water for a while, in a world where the air is neither thick nor thin and the light can’t touch you. He can’t stay there.
It shows a certain confidence that the band was willing to slow it down and take a breath. Perhaps it has something to do with the notion Harris expresses on the album’s third track, “I Let it Go”:
“I looked my fear in the eyes / looked at the water below / I knew I could love and live / I let it go.”
Los Campesinos – We are Beautiful, We are Doomed
Superchunk – Superchunk
Bad Religion – Against the Grain
MP3: “Now We Can See”