A new hope

The Thermals' tentatively ambivalent Now We Can See
By CHRISTOPHER GRAY  |  April 29, 2009

GROWING PAINS The Thermals wonder if healing has begun.

Amid a barrage of assessments of our new president's first 100 days in office, it's a ripe time for the Thermals to come back to Portland and offer their two cents'.

The Portland, Oregon trio's massive 2006 album, The Body, The Blood, The Machine (Sub Pop), eviscerated life in the Bush administration in a memorable, refreshing way. The album's concerns were familiar punk fodder — we're a nation of selfish and wasteful fools run by fundamentalist right-wing nuts — but its voice wasn't. Frontman Hutch Harris railed in Biblical terms with youthful, whiny pleas of scathing sarcasm and frightening implications ("We're gonna create a new master race/'Cause we're so pure/Oh, we're so pure"). Harris's guitar work fully realized its anthemic, gnarly punk ambitions, and his language was oblique and symbolic enough that it remained (and, more importantly, will remain) compelling.

The group's new release, Now We Can See (Kill Rock Stars), both benefits and suffers from any listener's familiarity with The Body, The Blood, The Machine. Harris updates recurring motifs from that album — frequent references to water, escape, and vision (sight or revelation) — to fit the new lens we're all adjusting to viewing ourselves with. His pen is as incisive as ever, but the new album's lighter tempos and more melodic guitar riffs can oversimplify the band's specific, ambivalent worldview.

Now We Can See is about love and death, mostly from the perspective of the dead, and if the concept holds up well enough on its own, it's easy to view Harris's subjects as citizens that have undergone a rebirth after, say, eight years of empiricism and paranoia. On one of the album's best songs, the twitchy "I Let It Go," he sings "I was wading with the hate I held so long/I thought it must be guiding me home/Only when I was crossed/Only when I was lost/Did I finally see it left me all alone."

Other titles, like "We Were Sick" and the album's eponymous track, further reflect the idea that maybe healing has begun. But if the band seem hopeful at times, their view of humanity writ large isn't fully redeemed. "We Were Sick" reflects on man's perversion of nature ("Every dirty germ another lesson in presence of man") and ignorance about the subject ("Stuck out our tongue catching the acid rain/We were high/We were alive") with trenchant wit, though the song's poppy, cymbal-heavy tempo and reliance on sing-along refrains make it sound too wise-assed. Likewise, the title track is full of great barbs ("Our enemies lie dead on the ground and still we kick," "Yeah, baby we were savage/We existed to kill/Our history is damaged/At least it was a thrill") but its cheeky wordless chorus and rote chord progression dull Harris's animated poetry.

That sort of easy, irreverent tone would suffice on many an ideological pop-punk album, but plenty of moments on Now We Can See prove the Thermals are above it. The sub-two-minute "When We Were Alive" adds a bit of reverb to Harris's voice, magnifying the gravitas of his angry recollections ("Piss drunk on power and cheap wine/We used to waste the world just to waste our time") as blistering, hyperactive power chords try to keep up with his motormouth. The wistful, touching "How We Fade" is one of the band's most successful ballads, twisting images of a tech-crazy society into a letter to an abandoned love.

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