My knowledge of the Thermals is, admittedly, rudimentary, selecting them for review on the basis of their kind-of-recognizable name alone and assuming that bands with such a name make for decent rock listening at the absolute minimum. Yet my very basic research bequeathed to me information of something much more substantial than a cruddy pop-rock band from the new nowheresville northwest. Indeed, the Thermals have a history of not so much making solid indie rock as they do in making some memorable, even remarkable albums. Not only have their past albums been rated 7.5 or higher on Pitchfork, but their concept album about theocrats or something made it onto one of the site’s best-of lists-albeit nearer the bottom, but still.
I neither own nor have heard those previous albums, but considering they haven’t sunk below the 7.0 rating, at which the Pitchfork editors start to vomit in their mouths a little, expectations can be high within reason. So I listened to some of the acclaimed tracks. To an extent I heard much of what the critics heard. The Body, The Blood, The Machine reeks of timely inspiration, solid writing, and some of the most thoughtful, if not the most articulate lyrics from the punk sphere in recent memory. It’s like the thinking person’s alternative to American Idiot-an album whose title is aimed more at the album’s listener as opposed to its narrative protagonist I’m sure. That Personal Life is every bit a part of the same artistic lineage as The Body, The Blood, The Machine is not in question. What is somewhat more puzzling, however, is that Personal Life is the descendant rather than the ancestor.
For all the ambition they’ve exuded in the past, it’s not in any way heretical to pull back on it a little bit, to be more modest, show some humility, and not hide as many stretch marks from those they love. What is somewhat more heretical is that they are challenging us to keep our interest, to remain engaged at the level that they deem fit, though what level that may be will likely differ between the band and the audience. The latter will likely be as interested in this album as they will a perfectly drawn smiley face on a colored sheet of paper, as that is the visual equivalent of what they did with this album. It’s cute, really. But that’s mostly it. This is not to say, however, that they won’t attract a decent amount of interest starting off.
What is clear from the get go is that their songwriting is as strong as it has been in the past. Guitarist/singer Hutch Harris and bassist Kathy Foster have no difficulty in crafting the purest and most direct pop hooks conceivable, doing so with no small amount of natural melodic attentiveness and technical precision. At a time in which it is getting ever more difficult to make songs that are great while being simple in composition, the Thermals are a welcome shift toward the positive. The opener “I’m Gonna Change Your Life” is a perfect example of indie rock influenced by anthemic classic rock grooves, as opposed to being overtaken and made indistinguishable by it. In fact all of the early tracks share this quality. “I Don’t
Believe You” and “You Never Listen to Me” practically coerced me to replay them indefinitely and even might have, had I had feelings and such nonsense, inspired me to jump with joy from wall to wall all over my house. Later songs are not exempt from this method, though they are given to being more cerebral, sometimes brooding. And yet their showing of humility reads also as lacking energy.
Perhaps it’s not so much the sound as it is the concept. If the album title and lyrics don’t deceive me, these songs seem tied together by the depiction of personal relationships, intimate ones at that. It is at this point that I cease to care. Harris’ lyrics catalog the various ups and downs that we as a race cannot avoid when sharing one another in ways both celestial and disgusting, in fact the lyrics could just as likely be read in any given breakup e-mail or tear-smeared diary entry (the great marvel of our species is that those letters and diaries of a 56-year-old male cannot stylistically be distinguished from that of his 11-year-old daughter’s). In a way The Thermals have created an album that is both listenable and relatable to pretty much anyone, which is fine, but it’s not very personal. Harris seems adept in conveying the anguish of others while not really distinguishing that anguish from his own, and in fact that’s less relatable, less interesting. Sure, 24 Hour Revenge Therapy has a ring of solipsism in some of its songs, but its idiosyncrasies and subjectivity are the very things that keep it powerful, relatable even.
Though to be fair, and parent-like, it’s not a crime to be sedated to the point of indifference at least once in your life. And I totally mean that as a compliment.