The Thermals know what they're doing, but that's all they're doing.
After nearly 15 years and six previous albums, the Thermals know what they're doing. They blend thoughtful lyrics (sometimes political and sometimes religious-ish) with an energetic, poppy punk sound. The problem with album number seven, We Disappear, is that the Thermals know what they're doing. They're still doing it well enough, but a by-the-numbers feel has started to creep in, preventing this one from matching the highs of their albums from a decade ago.
That said, We Disappear still offers plenty of rewarding material. The band's following a loose theme across the disc, contemplating modern technology, mortality, and related issues. Opener “Into the Code” (leading with some squall the album could use more of) merges those two primary issues, a less sci-fi take on disappearing into our technology: “Into the code / We stay alive … If we go we will not be missed / In the code, we will always exist”. The catch comes with the realization that technology offers its limitations of connection and useful even if it offers a suggestion of virtual immortality.
That sort of thought makes the album seem roughly of its time, but only a few years late. What could have been William Gibson reading Bowling Alone sounds more like the thoughts about social medium expressed ad nauseam on social medium.
Even so, the album stays afloat on the strength of a number of catchy tunes. Single “My Heart Went Cold” considers distance and isolation as a form of death, and the anthemic chorus of “My heart went cold / This I know / I pushed you away … I couldn't keep you warm / My heart went cold” makes for an unsettling embrace of a love turned empty. It's a little odd and considerably earwormy, and it works well.
Much of the rest of the album tosses around similar ideas. Musically, it provides memorable songs whenever it avoids a sameness. “If We Don't Die Today” is emblematic of the album's general condition. The title phrase carries its own importance, yet induces an eye roll. The lead guitar line works, and the song's a good bit of pop, yet the melody doesn't stick. It could have benefited from either a less dramatic phrase or from going all-in with a musical abandon to match it.
The Thermals at their best have been a catchy, noisy band full of ideas and energy. They're still reflective, but encroaching on pensive; they still craft great pop, but now there are times when it just stalls. It may be a little unfair to criticize a band for doing something well and continuing to do it, but that's what We Disappear produces. There's a noticeable mid-tier-ness about the album, even though most of it works well.
The Thermals have had a long, productive run, but it feels like time for a shake-up. This album reveals a band that's still capable, but when it's a trio that can produce better than that, the term “capable” shouldn't appear.