Album Review: “Personal Life” by The Thermals

The Thermals Personal Life

In 2006, The Thermals became everyone’s favorite powerpunk band with their blistering masterpiece The Body, The Blood, The Machine.  It only seemed like the next logical step after the exciting lo-fi of  More Parts Per Million, and the revved-up angst of  Fuckin’ A.

However, it’s the aftermath of The Body, The Blood, The Machine that’s a little more interesting. What do you do after you release a universally acclaimed masterpiece that catapults you from cult status to indie darling? Do you fold under pressure, try to expand upon your success with a recreation, or roll the dice and try to subtly evolve from that point? The Thermals chose the latter of the three, following that up with 2009’s powerpop gem Now We Can See which saw the band toning down their anger, expanding their songs (in both structure and length) and getting really poppy—which brings us to Personal Life, released last month.

Here’s a track-by-track review of the newest disc from Portland’s finest:

I’m Gonna Change Your Life: What’s immediately striking about this is the tempo. The Thermals have been know to jumpstart their albums with explosive opening tracks. Every Thermals opener from “It’s Trivia” to “When I Died” has been blistering and set the mood for the record. Now, for the first time ever, the band dials it back a few notches and unleashes a mid-tempo rocker that’s decidedly darker in tone, but retains their trademark bite with frontman Hutch Harris snarling “I’m gonna change your life, I’m gonna steal your soul.” It’s an unexpectedly potent start to what may be their most fascinating and divisive album to date.

I Don’t Believe You: This song springs up immediately after “I’m Gonna Change Your Life” has a closing drone. It’s a brilliant sequencing trick and will no doubt appeal to those who still believe in the LP as an art form (myself included). The song itself is the first single of the record and it’s extremely easy to see why. There’s a driving hook, a catchy melody, a quick tempo, whipsmart lyrics, and—most importantly, a good amount of “oh, oh, oh-ing.”  Having a clever video starring the frontwoman from fellow much-loved and missed Portland band Sleater-Kinney never hurts either.

Never Listen to Me:  Once again, The Thermals have caught me somewhat off-guard with a slow-to-mid tempo song, and its reliance on Kathy Foster’s bass work to carry a song.  It serves to punch up Harris’ riffs and gives Westin Glass’ drumlines added nuance. At this point it’s obvious that the album’s about love/relationships, and Harris continues to utilize his sharp eye to nail tiny details with even sharper words. While the lyrics are somewhat ambiguous the music provides them with an appropriate amount of dread and want, and it’s never more clear than on the pre-chorus of “follow the sound, follow me down, follow me down, follow me down, follow me down.” It’s clear that we’re dealing with a very different Thermals on this record, and this song marks that quite well.

Not Like Any Other Feeling:  For the first time in quite some time, a drum fill opens a Thermals track.  It’s a small, barely noticable, moment but long time obsessives will find it thrilling. What follows is one of the albums best songs, a perfect blend of the Harris’ understated riffs, sharp wordplay, Foster’s bass (once again, the focal point for the majority of the song), and extremely intelligent song structure. It rises and falls in all the right places, perfectly complemented by Harris’ singing. One could certainly make a case for this being the strongest lyrical work The Thermals have done since The Body, The Blood, The Machine. I’m particularly fond of the simplistic vocal hook of “perfect” as well, because it basically sums up this song. It’s used brilliantly throughout such as when Harris sings “You’re only free on the ground, when you fall you never make a sound. It’s not a feeling at all, it’s not like any other feeling you’d call… perfect.” Brilliance.

Power Lies: My favorite song on the record for a variety of reasons, the foremost of which is the musical gut-punch that comes halfway through the song.  That blow wouldn’t be able to happen were it not for the surprisingly powerful drumming coming from Westin Glass. I hadn’t noticed him too much up to this point on the record, but here he gets to let loose a little and the results are thrilling. The Thermals sound like a band to be reckoned with. The pacing is slower than the band’s norm, but it’s one of the faster songs on the restrained Personal Life. Harris strikes an autobiographical tone when he questions, “How did I find myself?  How will I ever know to stop?” If this record is any indication,  he won’t be needing to stop anytime soon.  The Thermals are in it for the long haul.

Only For You: In accordance to their influence, “Only For You” begins with a muffed drum mishap and leads into a song. After that, the song closely mirrors “Never Listen To Me” by again placing the emphasis on the slow-to-mid tempo bass which continues to punch up Harris’ increasingly tasteful riffing and chord placement. Glass’ drumming is, again, appropriately restrained and adds to the mood of the song with Harris confessing about how he’ll ignore certain feelings if only to “capture your days, if only to match your hate, if only to throw you away.” I’m guessing he’s been through a bad relationship or two.

Alone, A Fool:  This is an acoustic song. Yes, you read that right. Acoustic. Now you know just what kind of changes you’re dealing with. Harris’ vocal melody is one of the sweetest he’s ever recorded, but the lyrics are his typical blend of wit and self-degradation. There’s also a surprisingly powerful snare shot that rings out at the start of every measure giving the song an eerie ambience and provides the band their strangest song to date.

Your Love Is So Strong: Once again, they let Westin Glass cut loose on the drums and the results are even crazier than they were on “Power Lies.” The man is a powerhouse and he fits the band well. I can only hope he wll continue to shine like this in the future. “Your Love Is So Strong” has the fastest tempo on the album by some measure, and is as explosive as anything on Fuckin’ A yet as soulful as anything on Now We Can See. There’s a brilliant use of “whoa-oh-ay-ah-oh” which is now pretty much expected. It’s a firecracker of a song, and one I’m looking forward to seeing live.

A Reflection: The first song on “Personal Life” to remind me a little of The Body, The Blood, The Machine. A Reflection” boasts an impassioned, incredibly sincere, vocal performance from Harris. He practically screams, “A reflection love / a reflection of death / is all that we needed /it’s all we have left…” before the song dies in a cacophony of noise and feedback akin to the closing moments of “I Hold the Sound.” It’s riveting, vintage Thermals.

You Changed My Life: The song’s mid-tempo bounce neatly sums up the thematics of the album.  There’s more guitar riffs, more bass-driven verses, and more tastefully restrained drumming. Harris also makes excellent use of a subtle shift in the song’s mood provided by some well-placed, somewhat ominous, guitar work. Once again, The Thermals continue to prove they still have what it takes to remain in the upper echelon of indie, powerpop, and punk.

Personal Life shows a band that’s determined to push boundaries, defy expectations, and grow out of their comfort zone. If the music on their latest album is any indication of things to come,The Thermals stand poised to deliver some of our generation’s absolute best.

-Steven Spoerl

***Catch The Thermals live in concert TONIGHT at The Annex***

Cymbals Eat Guitars and Sleeping In The Aviary will open up the 9:3o show.  At the time of this posting, tickets are still available online here, and at the door.  Don’t miss it!

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