[8 September 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Despite the breakout success of The Body, the Blood, the Machine, 2009’s Now We Can See might be the Thermals’ crowning achievement as an album. Its timely mix of still-simmering vitriol and cautious hope, expressed with a subtle movement throughout the record, might not have blown the doors open the way its predecessor did, but it is a hell of a composition front to back.
Personal Life continues in that vein, as Hutch Harris and his band have put together another compelling whole with this album. It strikes out on new ground—away from the overt politics of those records—mining the sticky, well-worn topic that is love. But this record’s success as a whole comes in its own subtle movement from beginning to end, where Harris’s narrator, or narrators, moves from an all-consuming selfishness to something pretty damn close to blissful companionship.
Opener “I’m Gonna Change Your Life” is not the love declaration the title might imply. Instead, Harris sings about a more predatory kind of love, especially when that titular line is followed quickly with, “I’m gonna steal your soul”. This is a song about taking, about leaving your mark by wrecking everything in your path. The narrator here—hopefully it’s not Harris himself—is self-involved and destructive. This kind of love is just a way to take all you can and then get out. As we move from there to the mistrust and paranoia of “I Don’t Believe You” and the call to blindly follow on “Never Listen to Me”, the first chunk of the record is marked by breakdowns in communication. On “Never Listen to Me”, it’s all about not hearing the actual words—because then you might notice how loveless they are—and just following the sound of a voice into the unknown. It’ll work out, promise. Just come along. The hushed thump of the song, and Harris’s restrained hiss make the message all the more sinister.
As the record moves along, away from those out-and-out troubling early songs, the middle of the record is marked by confusion. “Power Lies” isn’t a call back to their political screeds, but rather a realization—very much tied to “I’m Gonna Change Your Life”—that stripping things from others will take its toll eventually. “It takes back what you take in time”, Harris bleats out, weighing down the words with disappointment. “Alone, a Fool” is a brief and surprisingly tender song, where the confusion in the middle of the record culminates in a sort of realization. Here the narrator is still alone, but the ‘you’ he’s been singing to seemed to finally get to him. He’s willing to admit he’s a fool, and where up to this point the record has relied on “I” language—everything insular and selfish—Personal Life moves to “you” language for the last third, as we finally see this voice reaching out, if reluctantly to make a connection. So that by the time we get to closer “You Changed My Life”—a reversal of the first track—we see a slight transformation.
The song is tuneful and energetic, as always, but the sneering edge has been shaved off, and instead Hutch Harris delivers the lines—“you taught me everything I thought I knew all along”, he admits—with an air of calm concession. He’s still clutching a bit to that past, all wounds aren’t healed, but once we’re at the end we see the record as an affecting transformation, someone who has matured out of self-serving, faceless lust into genuine connection with another person, or maybe with people in general. If it seems corny on the page, to hear the record is to discover just how carefully the band handles this movement. Their playing is as varied in tempo and texture as ever, a big feat considering this record was mostly recorded live to tape, and while Harris often repeats lines over and over again, the way he always has, here it feels like he’s searching with each repetition, or tugging fitfully at them in frustration.
While Personal Life is a convincing and impressive whole, it does have parts that don’t quite hold up on their own. The thing about relaying confusion is that it’s hard to do that and not make the song itself seem confused, which happens on “Not Like Any Other Feeling” and on the first half of “Only for You”. Though the latter song recovers in its second half, it shows that the moments of doubt here are better expressed noisily, and when these songs lapse into mid-tempo malaise, it may fit the album’s arc, but it makes for a song that doesn’t quite measure up to those around it.
So song to song, Personal Life may not quite match up to its predecessors, but as a whole it is as nuanced and exciting a set as we’ve seen from the Thermals. From day one, they’ve been one of the most exciting rock bands out there, and with every record they improve their pedigree as thoughtful, dynamic songwriters, and as a band out to prove that you don’t need to make a concept album to craft a smart, whole statement on record.