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The Thermals – Desperate Ground (Saddle Creek)

The Thermals - Desperate Ground
13 April 2013

I’ll keep this brief. We’re left with an idea: “Our Love Survives.” The purpose of a new Thermals album is to prove that it does, because one day, it won’t. Desperate Ground, their latest refinement and proof, is as good an album as they’ve made, one that’s pretty nearly overcome with its own vitality. If you’ve heard The Thermals before and know how beautiful and perfect that feeling is, then all I need to do is tell you to imagine that feeling happening again in your life, right now. Put another way: “We are alive / we will fight to the end.”

And that just leaves the words. Desperate Ground continues a style of songwriting that really took hold on 2009’s Now We Can See, with song titles as complete sentences, short and declarative, composed of personal pronouns and verbs whose meanings derive from whether they’re transitive or intransitive. That kind of non-specific but intentional approach lends major weight to every word while also opening up a lot of possibilities, a generosity of interpretation: The Thermals celebrate an idea of rock music as a dialogue between a singer and a placeholder. A lot of the power of 2010’s Personal Life came from the various meanings of such a relationship. The openness of the pronouns allowed it to be, if you wanted, a long-form communication between a punk singer and his audience: The world’s first concept album of gratitude directed toward some entity who never did anything but listen! The album begins with “I’m Gonna Change Your Life,” the usual promise, but by the end, the faceless, speechless listener who the singer has had to conjure as a proof of his powers, who is you, has taught him that the meaning of his work is bound up in this person’s existence: “You Changed My Life.”

It’s possible to read Desperate Ground as another set of rock songs about the primal link that rock songs establish, similarly meta in the pairing of its opening and closing tracks. On “Born To Kill,” singer Hutch Harris, now humbled, spills blood on the land when his audience commands; our love survives because he’s done his job well. In between, there’s a lot of violence, for which the music is more a capsule, this time, than a metaphor. There’s no need to be too reductive with these lyrics, which are among the most powerful Harris has ever penned, nor to be too simple with the meaning of “I” and “You” in the song titles. “I” am, among many other things, the poet, singing of “you,” the looming but never-present lover. And “I” remain always in thrall to the natural world, to the world as it is, with so much of the bullshit cut out or rendered as an abstract that the songs could be old, very old, except that they’re happening now. In some medieval world suffering the howl of the winds, Harris embraces them: “I opened my eyes and the sky did sing!”

Desperate Ground is so loud, attuned and unplugged, hopefully impossible to miss, but already I’m worried that people will look at its 27-minute length, feel they know what’s going on here, put it in a box and move on to something else. And sure, it’s not immediately a very surprising album. The Thermals discography now divides pretty neatly into two complementary halves, the one containing political songs that end up pretty personal and the one containing personal (pronoun) songs that end up pretty political (if those are different things). Desperate Ground continues and clarifies the strengths of this impressive second half. Allow it some time to be its own object, if only once, and it lives, in the most perfect way humans have discovered.