The Thermals – Now We Can See

The Thermals, a Portland, Oregon-based rock three piece, exploded onto the indie rock scene in 2006.  Their album, “The Body, The Blood, The Machine” took Pitchfork and its denizens by storm, which isn’t much of a shower.  It;s a lo-fi, straight-ahead rocker that is catchy (but not too catchy) and stands as a missive to the George W. Bush White House and its startling predilection to mix religion and government.  They take this battle righteously, the music churning along as if they’re on a mission from God to set the record straight.  Their latest album, Personal Life, takes a step back from such big-picture themes and turns towards introspection, losing some ferocity in the trade-off.  It’s an odd conceit as they already accomplished melding a personal story with a rollicking sound on their fantastic 2009 album, Now We Can See.

The music and lyrics, devised by Dutch Harris and Kathy Foster, could be confused as “simple” by flippant critics when the term they’re looking for is “essential.”  Now We Can See is packed with allusions to the sea, the air, the sky; all of these big concepts painting large pictures on their aural canvas.  When they sing, “I walked in the dark, I walked in the rain/I walked for miles and miles and years/and all I knew was heartache and pain” in “I Let It Go,” you get the idea that whatever happened to them wasn’t some piddling problem.  The issues the album’s protagonist face are building up like an emotional tsunami ready to crash and devastate everything in the vicinity.  Sounds conspicuously like a description of any regular old day of high school, doesn’t it?

But don’t let that give you the impression that this is a depressing album.  It’s vigorously pop, which is meant as a compliment.  These songs feel like they’re straight out of 1995.  The production adds a shinny veneer, with crystal-clear guitars and a driving snare that keeps everything clicking in an uptempo jog (save for the ballad, “At The Bottom Of The Sea,” which is practically screaming for use in a montage over a high school prom in a smart teen comedy).  This record goes through the same process that occurred in mid-90s alternative rock, where albums couldn’t help but be universally adored.  Now We Can See isn’t for a segment of the rock audience like The Body… was.  It’s an album for anyone who grew up.

Now We Can See plays out like a painful and teary goodbye to childhood from the prospective of 20/20 hindsight.  Sure, the record tells you it’s about life and death (the opener is called “When I Died,” for chrissakes) but isn’t that the same thing as growing up?  Every day, so many mundane things in life came wildly built out of proportion.  Whether or not Sara returned your glance in history class, if you won in gym volleyball, or if you tripped in the hallway in front of everyone, each small event had the weight of the world attached to its significance.  We look back to how silly it all was but also how wonderful it would be to re-examine what was important; I know I’d prefer being mortified as I farted in class over the fear of not being able to pay health insurance, as both sit on that same wavelength of feeling helpless.

Listen to the album’s burner, “When We Were Alive” which seems to be written by a desk jockey in between imputing data into an Excel worksheet.  The idea of “you should’ve seen us back then” goes through nearly every conversation about times past, something we’ll all do soon enough as Thanksgiving-Eve-Informal-High-School-Reunion Night quickly approaches.  As we naturally grow in age and malaise, each time we hearken back to our younger selves gets a bit more cheery and romanticized.  And as that distance grows, we lose track of the exact details and grip to the essentials:  the life, the love, the trust, the ache, the pain, all of which inform this album.

But it’s not all bad.  Now We Can See is both a telescope and a time machine.  While it certainly transports me back to my youth, it also gives me a wonderful bit of perspective.  When I hear “Liquid In, Liquid Out,” it’s hard not to think about college and the barrels of Pabst Blue Ribbon that I shoveled down my gullet…and how I could never, ever do that again.  That little bit of melancholy is the final, crucial element that makes this album so damn good.  Reminiscing about the past brings up the sadness in what has passed, and even if what you think of is sad, remembering the days of yore will automatically pick you up, because you were young, you were carefree, you were alive.

It’s this sweet and the sour feeling set against charmingly simple songs that you feel you already know the words to that makes this album so enriching.  So listen to Now We Can See and be amazed how much of your story it already knows.

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