Pop-punk as predictably great as the Thermals’ hardly needs a critic to make a claim for it or provide an entry point. This is a dubious little pre-emptive parry, and I’m aware of the other situations where people might trot out this little tautology: it’s good because it’s good, that’s all good, etc. But when you’re on the business end of a song like “A Pillar of Salt,” from The Body, the Blood, the Machine, being whiplashed around by the enthusiasm Hutch Harris uses to throw his voice into his snaky melodies, the band’s eager punk can feel like a metaphysical ideal. Beginning with their first LP, More Parts Per Million, the Porland band has been chipping away at this ideal with frequently impressive results, but it was with 2006’s The Body… that they figured out how to make their caffeine-and-weed bursts of energy and lyrical free-association stick over the length of an album. Now We Can See maintains the cohesion its predecessor arrived at through its album-length narrative, a fantasy of Bush-era exodus, but without an arc.
There’s a theme of sorts, an As I Lay Dying-style narration about death from the perspective of the dead and the living. It’s one you can safely ignore, though: Harris’ lyrical strength has always been in writing lines that can pass as accidental slogans, keeping the lyrics satisfyingly abstract while providing just enough emotional signage. The Thermals care, but the “caring-for” part of the equation has, even at their most topical, always been purposefully vague; it’s what allows them to be an earnest band without succumbing to the effort of conveying it. More important than the album’s conceit and whatever toehold it might offer, though, is that it sports less flab than their critical breakthrough. It might have something to do with the addition of a new drummer, Westin Glass, following Jordan Hudson’s departure prior to that album’s recording sessions. Technically, things are fully nailed-down here. Song tempos are more varied, too, and the Thermals are able to pull off slower songs like the “At the Bottom of the Sea” with the panache previously reserved for faster ones. Without the soggier moments that arrived in The Body…‘s second half, Now We Can See is evenly satisfying.
That sounds tepid. This is one of the strange things about the Thermals: when you’re in the music, little else compares to it. There’s an absorption and projection involved in the music that I haven’t encountered in this form since buying Red Medicine in high school. And yet there’s a slight tinge of self-policing, as if I should consider the band a guilty pleasure. There’s a crisis of representation in both visual art and music that’s only been made more keen by the current recession, and the Thermals are unabashedly representational punks. There’s a lot of comfort and consolation in their persistence, the fact that they understand why they’re good at what they do and why that matters: with this album’s “I Let It Go,” they capture the moment when liberalism transmutes into a form of self-help. There’s no shortage of PDXers attempting pocket Buddhism of the quasi-ironic sort, and to hear it worked into git-loose nerve-punk is just the kind of airing-out indie rock needs to steer it back to the right kind of involution.