The Thermals aren’t really about making any “small statements” with their music. Their records, at least the last few, have all featured overarching themes that took on topics like government, religion, and how we deal with tragedy. Not that one topic is better than the other or that these concepts are wearing progressively thinner, but it does seem the band’s high energy punk rock songs aren’t as effective (or energetic) as they used to be. Last year’s “Now We Can See” was great evidence that the band was having just a little bit of a hard time as they stumbled into a newfound maturity and pushed their hard-driving punk into something with a significantly smoother pop edge. For their new album “Personal Life”, The Thermals maintain much of the maturity they gained last time around but move away from that pop polish and rough up the edges a bit. The theme this time is relationships and all the good, bad and ugly that comes along with them. You could say that’s also how this collection of songs shakes out.
Okay, so there’s nothing particularly ugly or even bad about “Personal Life”, but there’s definitely moments that shine compared to others. Opening track “I’m Gonna Change Your Life” introduces us to the new reality of The Thermals, something a bit slower and almost testy, and if the song title is a mission statement it falls pretty flat. Things pick up almost instantly after that with first single “I Don’t Believe You”, which is easily one of the most fun and catchy songs the band has ever made. “Not Like Any Other Feeling” has some fascinating guitar work that may come off as a little fragile and tepid but that careful composure is also what makes it one of the most winning tracks on the album. A good second single would be “Your Love Is So Strong”, as its backing “oh”‘s really encourage a sing-along. Almost equally delighful is “Only For You”, which could benefit from a slight tempo increase but still pulls its weight with a compelling melody and emotional resonance. But in between all these triumphs and semi-triumphs are tracks that fail to strike with the necessary force to remain memorable. It’s about a half-and-half game of good and bad almost directly correlating in an alternating fashion track by track. It may be fine lyrically (most of the record is, as usual), but “Never Listen to Me” doesn’t do much instrumentally, with Kathy Foster’s bass line hitting the same notes over and over again and Harris’ electric guitar holding down a somewhat dragging tempo that’s close to but not quite danceable. “Alone, A Fool” is almost worth not mentioning, that’s how forgettable this acoustic ballad is. It drops in almost like a deadweight trying to pull the songs that surround it down with it. And though it fares a little better, “A Reflection” feels like just that, thinking out loud for a moment without so much as a chorus to go back to, just a constant stream of thought.
One of the things The Thermals tend to do great with on every outing are the lyrics, which Hutch Harris really gets to the heart of whatever subject he’s writing about. Any emotions outside of rage aren’t really felt in his vocals, but the wordplay is pretty fascinating each and every time. Compared to past Thermals outings, “Personal Life” doesn’t fare so well, and maybe one part of the problem is subject matter. When Harris rants against the government or organized religion, these are universal topics people tend to disagree on. Everybody has an opinion and whether or not you agreed with Harris at the very least he made his points with conviction. By taking on the topic of relationships, that’s less a debate and more a blatant truth. Everybody has been in a failed relationship at least once in their lives, and that’s a private concern between two individuals rather than a group or sect. It’s why the album title is what it is. But in minimizing the conflict it also minimizes the impact. Yes it’s still relatable on a mass spectrum but the experience is different for each person. That plus the calmer, downtempo moments turn “Personal Life” into a bit of a drag at parts. One could argue that these sorts of moments come with the territory of growing up, but if you look at a similar artist like Ted Leo who’s still cranking along with high impact punk rock tracks many years into his career, there’s proof it can be done. If The Thermals are looking for a hot button universal topic to tackle for their next effort, the environment might just be the thing to stir up some of that old fashioned rage Harris used to spit out like water from a faucet. “Personal Life” may be something of a wash, but grab a sponsorship from PETA and save some wildlife next time and things might just turn around for the little punk band from Portland that could.