The Thermals - Personal Life (Cover Artwork)
Staff Review

The Thermals

Personal Life (2010)

Kill Rock Stars

Over the past couple years, the Thermals have climbed atop the long lists of favorite bands for both my wife and I. After I procured this album for review we both waited anxiously for its arrival (yes, I still prefer CDs), and as we were out for a walk one evening we discussed our love for the band. I said something like, "The Thermals are one of the few bands where I could care less if they ever change. Their sound is simple and perfect so why mess with it?" This lead to a discussion of what has changed about the trio, like lyrical themes ranging from 2006's The Body, The Blood, The Machine with its religious (see: anti-) tone to 2009's Now We Can See and its focus on death and sickness to 2004's Fucking A and its musings on...fucking? Also brought up were sonic and production alterations from the near-boombox punk of 2003's More Parts Per Million to the significantly cleaner and poppier stuff of recent years.

I was amped up over the previously released single "I Don't Believe You" and its video, whose ending made me laugh out loud at a music video, possibly for the first time since I was into Blink. Other than the addition of Westin Glass on drums (who, by the way, fits in perfectly), the song essentially carried over everything I loved about Now We Can See: a toe-tapping tempo; furious down-strumming; addictive melodies; and "whoa"s. But like I said, that was just fine by me.

And I totally jinxed myself.

Personal Life has the Thermals getting, well, personal. It's bookended by "I'm Gonna Change Your Life" and "You Changed My Life." The sentiment rings true for any significant relationship, whether love or friendship. However, you know something is awry when a Thermals album eases in with lazily-strummed chords and a chill beat to follow. The closer, on the other hand, is a Strokes-ish number at a brisk walking tempo with sixteenths on the hi-hat and a light circular guitar lead. In between is a sandwich of mid-to-slow-tempo tunes, the kind you used to find in twos or threes on a Thermals record, now making up 70% of it. The only other tune that fits their previous album's blueprint would be "Your Love Is So Strong," with bassist Kathy Foster pitching in on the fun minor key "oh-whoa-ay-oh." Can't say I wasn't disappointed with the album's first run-through on my stereo, though.

Good news is, the slow tunes are growers. "Never Listen to Me" starts with some fuzzy bass then fades in an elastic Modest Mouse-style guitar lead, with Hutch Harris singing in a lower-than-normal range and bein' all soft ‘round the edges about it. The song grows but never gets real big, and not once does Harris let out his patented bray, but it's still big fun to sing that calm "Follow me down / Follow me down" couplet along with him. It's the model track for an album that's an exercise in restraint. Also exploring things that test relationships is "Power Lies," which stylistically would have fit perfectly on TBTBTM in place of, say, "Returning to the Fold" or "Test Pattern"--groovin' slow but still building to a satisfying vocal peak. "Only for You" tries but is not as successful or melodically memorable, though Harris saves it at the chorus' end with his go-to move, reaching up high with "Only for you / My love! / Oh-oh! / Oh-oh!"

The Thermals prove that I shouldn't pigeonhole any band, even one that has built a reputation on a belt-'em-out bash-'em-out formula. Not like they hadn't tested these waters last year with tracks like "I Called Out Your Name" and I was dumb to doubt them when they decided to dive in. I still don't think Personal Life will ever climb to the rank of my favorite Thermals record, but my opinion of it has climbed up significantly since that cynical first listen. Oh Thermals, I still love ya.