Album Review: The Thermals – Now We Can See

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Holy metaphors Batman! If you’re a fan of the abstract, then you’ve come to the right album. The Thermals frontman and key songwriter Hutch Harris has always had a lot to say about the current state of the world, and in particular, America. Of course, this is true of a lot of great songwriters, but with Harris, it’s how he goes about expressing it all which makes him so striking. With 2006’s The Body, The Blood, The Machine, you could pretty much tell what you were going to get lyrically from one glance at the album’s spiteful title. Rooted in gloriously ironic, satirical, and allegorical religious imagery, the album blatantly targeted the fatally flawed Bush regime and its numerous errors. But with Obama in office, and what would seem to be forward progress on Harris’ terms, how would Portland, Oregon’s The Thermals react in their follow up to 2006’s garage punk opus? By drenching the new album in recurring sea imagery and celebrating death as a new beginning, of course! Confused? You should be.

Being direct doesn’t really sit well with Hutch. And let’s be honest, it’s not much fun to have all of an album’s themes spoon-fed to you anyways. That’s where Harris and the rest of the Thermals shine. With fairly simple garage rock instrumentation and vocals, often teetering on the edge of pop-punk, the threesome manages to set themselves apart from most of their contemporaries through their cleverly crafted power-ballads, overflowing with indirect imagery up for dissection. You will never hear Hutch Harris’ high-pitched snarl tell you exactly what he means. Instead, he buries his messages underneath soil rich with sarcastic, humorous, and scornful figurative language. He has never been so figurative.

With Now We Can See, Harris begins the story with the protagonist’s symbolic death. On “When I Died”, the angsty frontman describes a first person, unusually dreamlike passing as a new beginning. As expected, Harris sets the album up for a whole mess of potential by starting off in such a counterintuitive manner. For Harris’ narrator, “The earth was too hot/ the air was too thin/ I took off my clothes/ I took off my skin/ I crawled to the sea that was calling for me/ so I could swim.” Critical is an understatement, as Harris explains that the world is no place for his narrator, who drowns himself in the ocean in preparation for what is next: “Where will I go? / And how will I know when I’m there?” Of course, this is all done in distinctly Thermals fashion. Humorously spiteful phrasing nestles between poppy delivery and catchy guitar riffs. You can’t help but chuckle as the speaker reflects, “Nature sure took its sweet time.”

From the album’s explosive opener, it’s evident that Harris has stuck to his analytical guns. He’s clearly not done giving the world a piece of his mind, as he reimagines the American dream through an elaborate posthumous vision. It’s hard to say just what Harris is yelling about as his character drowns in the ocean and looks “at the water below” for answers to all of his former life’s questions. The hypothetical, Kafkaesque situation certainly lays the framework for some heavy philosophical questioning. It’s clear that the album is about letting go of something, as “I Let It Go” would hint at, but it’s hard to melt it all down to one thought. But again, this provides a great deal of room for fun with multiple listens.

On the album’s title track, it becomes more apparent that Harris is still caught up with the Iraqi war and the many issues Bush left behind upon his White House exit: “Our enemies lie dead on the ground and still we kick.” Here Harris abstractly explains that the new election is both an eye-opener and a shovel that digs us deeper into the hole that Bush only began. Each song ties into the next, as our narrator sinks deeper and deeper into the sea in which he drowned, reflecting on the troubled life he once lived. “I will never come up,” he yells from “At the Bottom of the Sea”, and he’s not joking around. As a bass drum slowly thumps beside slow electric strums, one of the song’s most heartfelt tracks surfaces amongst the depths of the ocean that the Thermals have created as the album’s symbolically rich setting.

Harris further stresses the point as he reflects on the current economic situation on the hard hitting “When We Were Alive”. It’s not too difficult to connect the dots with lines like “We close our minds/we shut our traps/we’ve built a house/the house collapsed/we sold the woods/and bought a farm/and now we’ve got a place in the dirt in the backyard.” Only from death, can Hutch’s protagonist safely look back on the horrors he left behind. As the album continues, more posthumous reflection pounds the nail deeper into the warped wood. Harris is not going quietly, and he is letting everybody know it. But, man, does he have a way of telling them.

The Thermals certainly know what they’re doing. They’ve got the whole thing down. The music is fairly straightforward poppy garage rock, crafted from clean, but explosive electric strums set against pounding drums and thumping bass. But as Hutch wails atop it all, he reveals an encapsulating narrative. The combination of their philosophical outlook and catchy hooks makes them simultaneously easy-going and challenging, without coming across as pretentious. Here, however, the focus seems to be more on the words and less on the music. The Body, The Blood, The Machine was The Thermals at their best, sporting both their musicianship and songcraft with fervor. As good as Now We Can See is, it’s hard to neglect the small step down the band has taken in instrumental variation. I stress the word small. The music is still tight and powerful, one of many components that made TBTBTM such a success, it’s just that the new songs get overshadowed by what came before them.

Regardless, the album’s mind-bending concept and intelligent lyrics ironically hold the thing well above water. This is a strong grouping of songs. Tracks refer back to one another, reinforcing the album’s continuously challenging themes, and make for a great listen. The Thermals may not like the world we live in all that much, but it’s a good thing they keep sticking around to tell us what they hate about it.

Check Out:
“Now We Can See”