The Thermals: Desperate Ground
Author: Fred Thomas
Though the Thermals have explored different avenues on their albums, all roads inevitably lead back to their punk roots. Even 2010's Personal Life, with its handful of relatively subdued tracks that feel something like late-'90s indie or proto-dance rock, still had backbones of messy punk filtering the group's shy dabbling with new forms. Sixth album Desperate Ground undoes much of that dabbling, stripping the songs down to their rawest elements and offering mostly quick bursts of the type of melancholic punk energy that began the Thermals' accidental career over ten years beforehand. Tracks like the furious album-opener "Born to Kill" and "Where I Stand" recall the blown-out, back to basics of 2003 debut More Parts Per Million, though the production outgrows that album's distorted, four-track cassette beginnings. Vocalist/guitarist Hutch Harris' distinct articulating howl is in fine form here, and more spirited than on the band's previous few albums. Many considered 2006's politically charged The Body, The Blood, The Machine to be the Thermals' breakthrough moment, largely due to its direct lyrics defiantly challenging Bush-administration era warmongering and the religious right. Much as that album drove home its themes without forgetting to marry them to captivating punk sounds, Desperate Ground similarly sees Harris offering repeating ideas about humankind's inherent struggle with its own nature, with lyrics centering around harrowing journeys, war, battles, and forging lonely paths coming up repeatedly over Buzzcocks-esque riffs. As the group rounds out their first decade, both their musical and lyrical ideas seem sharper, more mature, and more considered. "You Will Find Me" and "Our Love Survives" sound not just confident, but resilient in their belief in long term love, however difficult that belief comes. The huge accomplishment of Desperate Ground is this ability to grow up some without slowing down; but quite the opposite, the Thermals return to form with this scrappy collection, blazing through serious topics but never dropping the tempo long enough to get overwrought or self-indulgent.