Album Review: The Thermals – Personal Life

[Kill Rock Stars; 2010]

It may be because it was the first Thermals album I heard, but 2004’s Fuckin A remains my favorite release of theirs. Propelled by some of the catchiest pop-punk hooks of the decade, the twelve songs on that record recalled the angsty charm of Green Day’s Dookie, released a full decade earlier—long before Billie Joe Armstrong decided he had Important Things to say about the Bush years. Fuckin’ A was the sort of album you blasted in your dad’s car while driving back from your friend’s lame party; it was a lustful and raging affair, never succumbing to whiny teenage entitlement but also not afraid to wear its imperfect heart on its sleeve. Even after two subsequent Thermals albums that saw Harris and company trade in these simple romantic outcries for high-minded politics, Fuckin A is still a remarkably satisfying album.

So when Thermals released a song called “Canada” back in February, I got excited. It’s not that didn’t love The Body, The Blood, The Machine, it’s just that there are only so many times you can sing about fighting the man before you start to parody yourself (as Green Day did on 21st Century Breakdown). Halfway in, singer Hutch Harris claims that “just you and me, we’ll have everything we need up in Canada,” and just like that, it becomes a love song. Not only was it funny to hear an American band praise our oft-maligned neighbors to the north, but it was a relief to hear that the Portland, Oregon trio hadn’t forgotten how to write music aimed not at the government or society but rather at someone else. My renewed interest in the band, already piqued, increased tenfold in June when the band unveiled the title of their upcoming fifth album: Personal Life.

Ten songs, thirtythirty minutes, power chords, smoky feedback: this is vintage Thermals. Fortunately, the band is savvy enough to play to its strengths without sounding redundant. Harris’s lyrics, as simple as they’re ever been, infuse otherwise old-hat punk love songs with a touch of cynicism that reveals a subtle maturity. On album opener “I’m Gonna Change Your Life,” for instance, he looks forward to beginning a new relationship but also braces himself for the inevitable breakup: “I’m gonna leave my mark,” he promises, eschewing the “we’ll be together forever optimism of so many budding romances. Lead single “I Don’t Believe You” finds Harris paradoxically arguing against the very cynicism he’s displayed on the opener. “Say you’re wasting away, say you’re wasting your days—I don’t believe you,” he spits out over a driving beat and the sort of four-chord progression that makes Thermals songs so listenable. “Never Listen To Me” comes next, Harris calling into question his own reliability with caveats like, “Follow my light, follow my lead, never listen to me.” Seeming contradictions abound on this record. The sarcastic “Your Love Is So Strong” features lines like “Your love is so strong, like nothing it crumbles to dust,” but what makes it really interesting is the way it straddles the line between honest assessment and illogic emotion. When Harris admits that “I need to be deceived,” the song’s title takes on a second, more literal meaning; her love is so strong that it keeps him coming back for more, even though she offers nothing but “a series of lies.”

If you liked Fuckin A, you’ll like Personal Life. “Power Lies” reflects the same regretfulness of older songs like “Every Stitch,” Harris asking why he continues to “hold to my chest every memory I mean to forget.” On album closer “You Changed My Life,” meanwhile, Harris surrenders to the same submissive lovesickness he shouted about on the endlessly entertaining “How We Know” when he admits that “You owned my heart, you wore it to shreds, you tore it apart.” Nobody’s personal life is as straightforward as it may appear, and the Thermals’ is no exception.

The whole album shares Fuckin A‘s dashed-off sensibilities, and while some listeners may be disappointed at the lack of political poignancy the band has spent the last several years cultivating, this return to form is cause for celebration. With the reliable Kathy Foster on bass and Westin Glass keeping even the slow burners moving on drums, the Thermals have plenty to offer fans on their latest release. Even though they’re not as angry as they were in 2006, they still have a lot to say, and the savvy listener will return to this album to both revel in its catchy melodies and to glean new messages from its tantalizingly ambiguous lyrics. The Thermals are experts at making the personal feel universal, and you can’t fault them for returning to the very sound that made them successful in the first place.