For just over a decade The Thermals have stuck to their scrappy, good-timin’ punk formula. And they’ve done it better than anyone, making economical four-chord rock that’s still potent and thrilling. The Portland trio deviated from that path in recent years, albeit only slightly. On Now We Can See they embraced squeaky-clean production and bubblegummy boy-girl choruses, and 2011’s Personal Life took on a darker new wave bent, driven by Kathy Foster’s fuzzy bass lines.
Of course, anticipation for a new Thermals record these days is less about the music as it is the topic they decide to take on. And both of those records continued singer-guitarist Hutch Harris’ thematic approach to working through life’s big questions, a trend that started with the band’s untouchable 2006 political indictment The Body, The Blood, The Machine.
As with past albums, Desperate Ground (their first on Saddle Creek) sounds like a rock and roll party, even though the underlying theme is much more stark. In fact, it really can’t get much darker. This time around Harris gets to the root of what drives someone to kill. It’s pretty heady stuff for the times we’re living in, but Harris doesn’t point to any particular events, keeping his examination of the human psyche universal and timeless.
“Born to Kill” draws first blood (ahem), exploding like a bomb with Harris sounding particularly nasty: “I was made to slay unafraid to spill / blood on the land when you command I will.” The intensity doesn’t let up through Desperate Ground’s 10 tracks, which clock in at just under a half-hour. “The Sunset” and “The Howl of the Wind” offer a little respite, both musically and lyrically. And even though they still grapple with the internal struggle of someone who’s done the unthinkable, they come off more as sobering realizations than crazy-eyed manifestos. But there is a survivor in all this. “Our Love Survives” closes things on a tender note—tender that is if you’re Mickey and Mallory Knox.
The production from John Agnello, who’s done terrific work with Dinosaur Jr. and The Hold Steady, can’t be overlooked. The grit found on The Thermals’ early records has returned, and it gives Desperate Ground a proper snuff-film graininess. There are no harmonies, leaving Harris’s vocals to cut through like a rusty saw blade. And guitars are thoroughly cranked, held taut by Foster’s fuzz bass and Westin Glass’s slappy drumming.
Desperate Ground is easily the best Thermals record since The Body, The Blood, The Machine. It’s a return what the trio does best: Making your body move to pogo, while your brain quietly weeps for humanity. Nothing like a little bloodshed to get the blood, and the fists, pumping.