Album Review: The Thermals – Desperate Ground

[Saddle Creek; 2013]

I’m probably in the minority on this one, but I think the Thermals’ third album, The Body, The Blood, The Machine, should have been every bit the success that Green Day’s American Idiot was. Sure, Green Day was just slightly higher profile and got to the punch quicker, but both albums were at the top of the heap in terms of mad-as-hell-and-not-going-to-take-it-anymore, Bush-era punk rock. The Body, The Blood, The Machine was unrivaled in its imagery and arc. Now, what was a one-time excursion for Green Day is slowly becoming a canned repertoire for the Thermals. They’ve built a career out of critiquing the system and a desire to live in a more egalitarian world.

So here we are at Desperate Ground, the band’s sixth album and third since what will go down as their most relevant statement. In the time between, they have distanced themselves from chunky hyper-politicos, refocused on making less immediate and more introspective records, particularly on 2010’s Personal Life. Unfortunately, Desperate Ground plays as a regression in its music, lyrics, and even its chord structures. Comparisons to Machine will be inevitable, and they won’t be favourable. Crunchy guitars, kinetic drums, and odes to violence, love and injustice reign supreme. While the fury remains, there a perceptible dip in quality in nearly every aspect of the Thermals’ formula.

Even the highlights have their problems. “The Sword By My Side” strikes a chord very similar to Cloud Nothing’s “Stay Useless,” and struggles to surprise despite its intrinsic catchiness. “I will not be denied my destiny,” screams Hutch Harris on “Born to Kill,” which again depicts a mindless, bloodlusting killer who wants nothing more than to follow a clear cut path that was set out for him. It works on a metaphorical level for what appears to be happening to the band. There’s no desire to expand their vocabulary, musical or lyrical, or change up their game.

The tempo throughout Desperate Ground struggles for consistency, and it’s strange to see a band that plays with such fire in their bellies go through the motions for the first time. Vital this album is not. Tracks like “The Howl of the Wind” and “You Will Find Me” sound parched for inspiration, and the nuance of The Body, the Blood, the Machine nowhere to be found. It’s impassioned as you like, but the stalwart commitment to their gameplan is wearing a little thin.