[7 April 2009]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Now We Can See is not a sequel to The Body, The Blood, The Machine, but it is the perfect record to follow the fire and brimstone and slouching-towards-apocalypse tension of its predecessor. This new album is, without a doubt, a post-crisis record. And while one can guess that the crisis we are past is the eight-year reign of the Bush administration, the Thermals aren’t necessarily interested in casting stones after the fact. The Body, The Blood, The Machine was certainly about “them”, but Now We Can See is about “us”, about what we do now that things have changed—for the better and for the worse.
For an album that picks up after a crisis, in a time of supposed healing, there is an awful lot of death on Now We Can See. “When I Died”, the album’s opener, has Hutch Harris once again going back to the sea, but this time it is to die. “I took off my clothes, I took off my skin,” he sings as we follow him into the surf, leaving the land behind for good. “I Called Out Your Name” feels, at first, like a heartbroken plea, but gets more strident as it goes, and turns into something far more anxious and clawing. The fear, some miasmic fear, is overtaking Hutch on this one, and he is broken and defeated by song’s end. “We Were Sick” is another anxiety attack put to music, although the bouncy melody with which Hutch and Kathy Foster sing the title’s claim, with their voices unsettlingly calm and almost joyous, shows them clinging to that anxious feeling rather than shedding it.
And that feeling—of being stuck between a damaging then and promising not-quite-yet—paints most of Now We Can See. The album’s title track, as we see, isn’t the sound of blind optimism, but instead of something more cautionary and ironic. “Now that our vision is strong, we don’t need to admit we were wrong,” Hutch sings during the track, implying not-so-subtly that we—the public or the country or the world—aren’t expunged of old mistakes just yet. Leadership may have changed hands, but the past hasn’t been erased. The song sounds like a galvanizing anthem, and it is, but its based on a false certainty, and sheds light on the dangerous notion that we’re really past those gloomy past eight years. Or any number of dark pieces of our history for that matter.
The title track is followed by the brilliant “At the Bottom of the Sea”. It a surprisingly quiet and slow-building song for the ever-volatile Thermals, but its also full of bittersweet atmosphere. The muted guitars make the track murky, as Hutch turns yet again to sea imagery to look at class division. “The light is gray, the light is rare,” he sings at one point, clearly speaking of a new hope—almost certainly connected to Obama’s victory—but continues by saying, “it barely touches us, its barely there for me.” It’s a sobering point to make after invoking the heavy albatross of history around our necks to then also remind us that our current problems are not solved, and that often even the greatest hope doesn’t filter down to the lower class. What makes the song so brilliant, though, is that it doesn’t lament, it demands. It grows into a giant piece of power-pop, threaded through with squealing lines of feedback, that insists on being heard, on pushing out rather than collapsing in on itself.
But though it seems like Now We Can See is still dwelling on negatives, in the end it is a cautiously hopeful record. The Thermals have never sounded quite so free and loose. Now We Can See uses the same basic elements we’ve heard on all their past records, but there is a sonic heft to these songs that is new. The power chords embed themselves in these tracks rather than barking over them. Hutch has a new tuneful curl to his voice, emphasizing melody over volume. And though their fangs may be sanded down just a little bit, though they may have more pop than punk on this record, they don’t lose their infectious energy. Lyrically, the band has always had a short but volatile vocabulary, often relying on repetitive punch to drive their point home. But on songs like “When I Died” and the wonderful “I Let it Go”, Hutch gets a little wordier than usual, stretching out the melodies into smooth, worming phrases, and moving away from the terse cuts that shaped their older work.
These sweet melodies and word-stuffed songs come from a band who sounds set free. They want to have hope that things will get better, they want to believe they already have in some ways. Hell, they do believe those things. But they’re also not ready to forget, not yet ready to move on. “I Let it Go” is perhaps best captures the album’s cautious joy. “I was waiting with a hate I felt so long I thought it must be guiding me home,” he sings, and “thought” is the key word there. Because he realizes hate only isolated him, but he’s not ready to just dismiss that feeling. He’s holding onto it, if only a little, as a lesson.
We can see now, that much is clear on this record, but what we can see is behind us. This album is about the confusion in the moment right after the bad time, about the vacuum change leaves between problem and solution. Though Hutch often returns to the sea on record, to wash away the past, to emerge anew, there are still bits of trouble stuck to the distortion in these songs. The Thermals are a great band—and have made another great record—because they may sound brash, but they never deal in reactionary extremes. Their anger wasn’t blind on The Body, The Blood, The Machine, and neither is their optimism on Now We Can See. It’s a record that plays with themes that are definitely timely, but the sound they make has an energy that swells in your chest, that tenses in your limbs and quivers in your gut. And that feeling is timeless.