Initial reviews/complaints about Personal Life, the new album by the Thermals, admit (sometimes begrudgingly) that Personal Life is good, even if it’s not the Thermals’ best album (that would be 2006’s The Body, the Blood, the Machine, which is the best auditory middle finger ever flown at organized religion). I’ve made baseball analogies about this sort of thing in the past (about other great bands that make kickass records and still get grief from the Indie Internet Intelligentsia – the dreaded III – for not being quite as awesome as they used to be. Look: if someone gives you an orgasm, you don’t kick ’em out of bed because the headboard didn’t bang quite as hard the next time around. Orgasms are orgasms and good bands are good bands. Good bands can make bad records, don’t get me wrong, but I think some critics get a little hair-splitty about albums that are merely “good” instead of “soul-shatteringly, pants-shittingly awesome.” Some critics’ reactions to the Flaming Lips’ At War with the Mystics album [which followed Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots] come to mind here), but since the Thermals hail from my beloved Portland, Oregon, and college football season is finally, gloriously upon us, I think I have just the device with which to discuss Personal Life.
Last Saturday, the Oregon Ducks beat the New Mexico Who-Gives-A-Fucks (I kid, I kid; they’re called the Lobos. Which is Spanish for “easily vanquished”) 72-0, racking up 59 points before halftime and pounding out 720 yards of offense. In a single game. Now, New Mexico might be the worst team in college football (or possibly even in Pop Warner football. They’re really awful), but if you look at the stats, you have to give Oregon credit. They’re not gonna put up those kind of numbers against every opponent, but that ass-whooping is indicative of talent, even if it gives no solid indication of how that talent will do in a really competitive game.
Now: let’s say the Thermals = the Oregon Ducks and Every Other So-Called Pop/Punk Band = New Mexico. The Thermals have been kicking the shit out of better known bands (many of which have numbers in their stupid names) for a while now and our expectations of them are commensurate with the thunder they have brought to their every outing. A Thermals record should blow every other album out of the T section of the music store. Personal Life still does that, but it’s not your 720 yards of offense kind of record. It’s a solid 500 yards though, which is probably what the Ducks will put up at Tennessee this weekend (hubris? What’s that mean?). Except the Thermals’ toughest competition is their own catalogue, the star player for whom is The Body, the Blood, the Machine.
Having dealt with God & government on The Body, the Blood, the Machine and death on Now We Can See, Hutch Harris, Kathy Foster, and recently added drummer Westin Glass have set their sights on love for Personal Life. As a lyricist, Harris has always erred on the side of forthrightness, but that’s to his advantage. Unlike, say, Green Day, Harris doesn’t put on any Dylan or Lennonesque airs. He shouts what he thinks while strumming crunchy riffs in a blissfully rudimentary (yet undeniably “all killer, no filler”) manner. This is one reason why I sincerely hope The Body, the Blood, the Machine is the album fans of American Idiot will listen to when they grow up. Billy Joe Armstrong, for all his name-checking of Jesus, won’t ever deliver something as direct and razor-sharp as “‘Cause God is with us/ and our God’s the richest.” So to my mind, Hutch Harris is a great writer to address the optimism, pessimism, and general moodiness that romance inspires in all of us at one time or another. Too many writers strive for a poesy that is far beyond their abilities when discussing love (Tom Waits handled this best when he wrote, “I’m gonna love you till the wheels fall off”, which is still my favorite lyric about love. Ever) and Harris reliably avoids that on this album, opting for lines like, “When you were made/ you were made from mistakes” and following “I only aim to deceive” with “never listen to me,” illustrating the obfuscation of intent that only someone who really loves you can get over on you. Opening with “I’m Gonna Change Your Life,” and proceeding to songs like “I Don’t Believe You” and “Never Listen to Me”, Personal Life isn’t afraid to be as moody as that ex you never talk to (far be it for me to suggest that your current love interest, Dear Reader, is moody in the slightest) and the music – despite what you’ve possibly read – is vibrant throughout.
There are a couple of musical mood shifts – namely “Alone, a Fool” and “Never Listen to Me” that are a nice change of pace for the Thermals. While I have loved Harris’s warm, fuzzy guitar tone since the first second I heard it, it’s nice to have some more prominent bass (“Never Listen to Me” is driven by Foster’s bass and harmonies straight out of a Cars song, though it ends with a typically melodic Harris guitar solo) and some softer dynamics here and there. There’s still plenty of the Thermals you know and love (lead single “I Don’t Believe You” and “Your Love Is So Strong” are classic Thermals), however, and it’s hard for me to imagine fans of their last two records being very disappointed with Personal Life.
Getting back to my sports analogy (sorry, Sniveling Indie Kids. I like indie rock and also football. Your stereotypes, I tell them fart jokes and read James Joyce with them), there are people, giddy and deluded by Oregon’s impressive win (even given the fact that New Mexico couldn’t beat your mom at football) over the Lobos of New Mexico, who are going to make predictions of National Championship glory for the Ducks. These people are putting some seriously undue expectations on an Oregon team that is undoubtedly good; it’s just that they’re not perfect. It’s just so with the Thermals; there are people who hear songs like “An Ear for Baby” and “Pillar of Salt” and expect that every single Thermals song is going to be a twin-bladed dose of anthemic awesomeness and righteous indignation. Like the deluded Ducks fans, Thermals fans of this ilk are setting themselves up for disappointment. The Thermals are not always going to make perfect albums, but they are always going to make good albums. Most of the time, they’re going to make awesome albums, and you can safely count Personal Life in this category. Unless you just put your paycheck down on a 72 point spread in favor of the Ducks this weekend.