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The Thermals - Personal Life

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Artist: The Thermals

Album: Personal Life

Label: Kill Rock Stars

Review date: Sep. 22, 2010

There are two things to note about Personal Life, the Thermals’ fifth album. First, unlike the band’s last two albums, it is concerned with small-scale human drama (the title of the album tells us as much) rather than big concepts. And, also continuing a trend, the Thermals round off the rough edges. That last development has been more or less evident on each album since 2003’s More Parts Per Million. That album – recorded on a 4-track, and without a song longer than three minutes – established the Thermals’ throwback pop-punk sound. On subsequent albums, songwriter Hutch Harris was less beholden to the compositional conventions of classic punk rock, but brought the same kind of urgency and energy to more polished and professional-sounding albums.

The last two Thermals albums, 2006’s The Body, the Blood, and the Machine and last year’s Now We Can See, were also more or less thematic, containing songs about politics and religion (the former) and life and death (the latter). Personal Life is a relationship album, which provides it with a theme of sorts, even if it’s one that pop music is more traditionally preoccupied with, and it lacks the social and philosophical import of the previous albums.

Personal Life opens with “I’m Gonna Change Your Life,” and then flips that sentiment on the closing “You Changed My Life.” Those two songs, along with “Your Love is So Strong,” give the album an upbeat gloss, but in between the tone of Harris’ lyrics is unmistakable pessimism. “Power Lies” explores emotional gamesmanship, and other songs touch on failure and mistrust (“I Don’t Believe You” and “Never Listen to Me”). As always, Harris doesn’t try to tell stories through his lyrics – he’s more interested in evoking a mood or driving home a point. Examine, for instance, the parallel structure on “I Don’t Believe You,” the first single: “Say you’re wasting away / say you’re wasting your days,” and “Say you’re going far away / say you’re leaving in a day.” Or just listen to “Only For You,” where nearly every line begins with the words “if only.”

Musically, the Thermals’ tunes are several steps slower than they were on earlier albums, and bass player Kathy Foster and drummer Westin Glass are driving more and more of the songs. “Never Listen to Me” is mid-tempo dance music, and “Alone, A Fool” and “A Reflection” are deliberate songs that avoid the quick payoff of a typical Thermals song.

Still, the reflective tone of the lyrics and the calmer pace of the music suggests this is a transitional album. The Thermals may have gone as far as they can within the limits of late ‘70s-style punk rock, and it’s easy to understand the desire to branch out. And even at a more measured pace, Harris has a knack for writing hooks; and some of the material here is as catchy as anything this band has done. Personal Life is absorbing and entertaining the first few times through, but many may not find it as engaging as the Thermals’ best work.

By Tom Zimpleman

Other Reviews of The Thermals

Fuckin' A

The Body, the Blood, the Machine

Now We Can See

Read More

View all articles by Tom Zimpleman

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