Music Reviews
Now We Can See

The Thermals Now We Can See

(Kill Rock Stars ) Rating - 10/10

Every Thermals record contains a handful of moments that shine with insane euphoria, moments where the group’s careening jubilations arrive at a wild peak of unhinged spirit and glee. These moments are the great Thermals songs within great Thermals songs, a few precious seconds of pure ecstasy that sound more conjured than performed (choice epiphanies in Goddamn the Light, How We Know, When You’re Thrown, Returning to the Fold, and St. Rosa and the Swallows come to mind; there are many, many others). If you love the Thermals then you know these moments well: you eagerly anticipate them, you replay tracks endlessly in order to relive them, you physically react to them and hear them screaming in your ear for days. These are the kind of moments that most bands only manage to muster a handful of times, if ever, in the span of a career. The Thermals are special because they seem to approach the precipice on almost every track; they seem to thrive on the edge of epiphany, peeking over and laughing wide, and occasionally diving down head first.

The premise of succumbing to gravity is more than just a clever way of making the sound of the Thermals tangible. The surreal anticipation of relief in death is a lyrical obsession of Now We Can See and is central to one of the record’s truly massive moments. The raging finish to I Let It Go is sheer cathartic rapture: spurred on by the Hutch Harris’ off-the-cuff whoops and set to saccharine-stun via Kathy Foster’s maiden turn on the mic, the song’s sturdy mid-tempo riff and bittersweet hook culminate in a loud, eruptive coda, a pitch-perfect aural match to a song about embracing a nose-dive into the unknown. As the Thermals barrel into the red, Hutch is screaming emphatically, “I looked my fear in the eye/ I looked at the water below/ I knew I could love or die/ I let it go, I let it go.” The arc on When I Was Afraid is just as glorious: the song’s first half pits a stuttering groove against Harris’ clipped metaphysical wails (“Love/ it held me near/you held me close/I couldn’t die,”) and builds towards a rib-soaking guitar lead and a breathless final lap that has Harris shouting, “Fear is mine/ fear is by my side,” like he’s skinny dipping in the River Styx.

These are just a pair of the high water marks (so to speak).  Now We Can See is brimming with the kind of  righteous and uplifting rock that has fattened the Thermals’ stock for five years and counting. This band has been on fire, NBA Jam style, since their very first record, and Now We Can See is another half-hour awesome stack of timber for the blaze. I sincerely pity those who take this band for granted: if you’ve ever uttered a single word about the lack of heartfelt excitement in contemporary indie rock, then you need to get into the Thermals, and you need to get into them hard.

I suppose I’m obligated to mention that, stylistically speaking, Now We Can See is a far cry from the fuzz shard sound of the group’s early work, that this is a polished power pop record, and that this is a sign that this band is “maturing,” presumably because they are abandoning punk rock, the sport of knaves and toddlers. Yet as the Thermals continue wiggling their way from the stylistic confines of punk, they seem to be closing their mitts all the more firmly around its spiritual core. Now We Can See is very much a record about vision, death, disease, perspective, and, er, turning into a fish (?) but its great expressive anchor is the elated desperation that gives punk both its wickedness and its promise. The album’s sound, though certainly well honed, still manages to gush energy and excitement even at its slowest tempos. Punk's logic of formed recklessness and screaming ever forward thwarts style brackets and punches pigeon-holes; most of the best post-punk punk bands know this, and the Thermals are one of the very, very best.  Now We Can See sounds like a pop record, but it still feels punk to the gills.