Review of Desperate Ground Album by The Thermals

There's something reassuring about the urgency that runs through the veins of The Thermals' sixth album Desperate Ground. It's the Portland trio's first record in three years, but there's no sign they've mellowed with age. The 10 songs here demonstrate why they're among the best of what the Pop-Punk genre has to offer; it's lo-fi, angry and incredibly catchy. But there is an underlying feeling that Hutch Harris' acerbic social commentary falls a little flat on The Thermals' debut release for Saddle Creek.

The Thermals Desperate Ground Album

The band finished recording Desperate Ground in Hoboken just hours before Hurricane Sandy made landfall last year, and perhaps it's that which adds to the urgency on display here. But, unlike earlier releases, some of the more raw edges have been smoothed down, leaving Harris' lyrics to carry the burden of packing the emotional punch required. He therefore decides to focus his attentions on a loose theme of war and conflict. Unfortunately, that's where my problems with Desperate Ground lie.

First single and opening track 'Born To Kill' highlights the sometimes unnecessary physical and mental sacrifices required on the front line ("Blood on my hands, when you command, I will."). But while it provides an insight into what The Thermals are rallying against, it's perhaps a little too generic to hit its target of US foreign policy properly. In a post-Bush era where America seems to be less likely to resort to a military solution as the first option, Harris' critique appears to already be somewhat dated. It's a theme that continues with 'I Go Alone' ("Each night I dream of a war") and 'Faces Stay With Me'. While he's also tackling post-traumatic stress here, it's a well-publicised issue faced by veterans, and again something that's been hitting the headlines for years. 

Closing track 'Our Love Survives' epitomises the main issue I have with the record though. While it's perhaps the best song here, and is remarkably hopeful for a track on an album about war and adversity, it's almost too non-specific about its subject matter. "Our love is true, it's why we fight", Harris says as he sets up his 'love conquers all' post apocalyptic story. But what is he fighting against? At no point on Desperate Ground does Harris make the enemy obvious. And by not revealing a specific threat his anger feels at times redundant. While musically the album is pretty much faultless if you want noisy guitar driven Punk, Harris almost undermines the protest on display by casting his net so wide that it fails to connect with the listener.

Desperate Ground is therefore not the best example of The Thermals at the peak of their powers, but it's an admirable attempt to tackle some big issues. While it may not resonate with every listener, it will no doubt please the band's core audience, who'll revel in some excellent guitar work throughout.

Jim Pusey

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