Now We Can See by The Thermals
So begins the Thermals glorious fourth album, Now We Can See, and less than ten seconds in, you’re thinking to yourself, this isn’t punk rock, it’s fucking poetry, but before you’ve even had time to ball up your little fist, that first chorus hits and you feel the animosity melting away as you start shouting along, because, you know, the Thermals are that kind of band and this is that kind of album.
Which, if we’re being honest here, still comes as a bit of a surprise to me.
In 2003, the Thermals were lofi and bratty, punk kids spouting maxims and sticking it to the man, taking the piss out of NWA in their “No Culture Icons” video:
And it’s fun and it’s catchy and it makes your ears bleed and on some levels that’s enough for me, but if you told me six years ago that someday I’d have one of their albums on repeat for six months straight, I’d have shown you how bad I am at predicting the future.
Toward the end of the Thermals’ 2006 neo-con-theocrat-backlash rock opera the Body, the Blood, the Machine, Hutch Harris’ narrator was dodging gas chambers and genuflection benches, determined to “crawl back to the sea,” and three years later, this album opens with him finally doing it, shedding clothes and skin, trading arms for fins and feeling around for his gills, an inverse of that first fish that sprouted legs and crawled out of the muck.
That fateful devolutionary swim doesn’t last long though, (spoiler alert: the song’s called “When I Died”) and before we know, the inevitable happens. But worry not, dear readers, he’s cool with it, having no questions other than “where do I go and will I know when I get there?” as his swollen-headed corpse is pulled from the sea by a group of onlookers.
The storytelling and maturity that we first glimpsed on the Body, the Blood, the Machine come full flower on Now We Can See. In addition, the album finally ditches the lofi aesthetic (which was feeling a bit played out anyway after three albums) and invested in producer John Congleton, who also threw a coat of gloss on St. Vincent’s wonderful Actor, and engineered the last couple of Mountain Goats albums. The characteristic crunch is still there but gone is the suspicion that masters were left out in the sun too long.
Things really get interesting with the second track, “We Were Sick.” Our first person posthumous narrator suddenly goes plural as the whole band gets into singing the sins of man from gleeful the point of view of the collective dead:we were high! we were alive! we were sick!
There’s conflagration of a few things going on here: the collective voice, the exhilaration, the pointed use of the past in lines like:
we were sick! we covered the earth!
And you start wondering if these kids aren’t imagining a post-human era for the earth and reveling in the idea of it.
Don’t believe me?
Check out the title track, which again assumes the titular we, running through a damaged history of the species punctuated by a clap-along chorus of “oh-ee-ohs.”we were born in the desert we were reared in a cave we conquered in the sun but we lived in the shade yeah, baby we were savage we existed to kill
our history is damaged at least it was a thrill
You’d think a series self-indictments of a race of warmaking pillpoppers would grow old quick, but the brevity, joyousness, and cleverness of the songwriting still has my fists pumping a year later. Plus, there’s something comforting in the idea that once we’re done living, we’ll be able to live with what we’ve done.
At thirty-eight minutes, Now We Can See perfectly matches my morning commute on a heavy traffic day.
And on a low traffic day, I’ll sit in my car in the parking lot and listen to “How We Fade” and “You Dissolve” before venturing off to my day. They’re the perfect counterpoint to all of the teeming humanity I have to face.
This kid’s not a bad skater!