The previous album from the criminally underrated Thermals, the stellar The Body, the Blood, the Machine, imagined a dark version of America over-run with evangelicals and fascists who took away everyone’s rights. On their fourth album, the fine Now We Can See, the band tackle lighter fair: death and all that comes with it. Instead of songs full of angry political piss and vinegar (like on 2003’s More Parts Per Million and 2004’s Fuckin A), Now We Can See has songs about darkness closing in, fear over living a less than satisfying life, leaving the ones you love, and the nature of death from the perspective of a few corpses.
Now We Can See completes the development that started with The Body, in that the Thermals have expanded their sonic bludgeoning to a more nuanced pop-punk approach that revolves less and less around quick blasts of punk fury and focuses on tightly packed choruses. That subtle difference, which is perfected on Now We Can See, forms the band’s second great album in a row.
The title track is one of the Thermals’ best songs. It relies on a sweet, wordless chorus that sounds lifted from a Big Star record, which would have seemed like an impossibility when the Portland band started off with a basket of three-chord riffs and a lot of disenchantment. The heartbreakingly tender “At the Bottom of the Sea” is an honest-to-goodness ballad, with frontman Hutch Harris lamenting like a lovelorn teenager over the fact that he’s not going to be around anymore. The bouncy but powerful “When I Was Afraid” melds Harris’s shouting to a hammering power chord riff that never explodes into the meltdown that its menace indicates, instead veering off into a melodic power-pop solo. The vigorous “I Called Out Your Name” has the sweetest group vocals the Thermals have ever put on wax, and sing-along closer “You Dissolve” is the album’s cherry, with the music sounding like a great bar band on top of its game and Harris warbling about how death is “just another way to exist.”
There’s still plenty of face-melting going on here, though. A lot of the songs come in at less that three minutes (the whole thing is a hair under 35 minutes), and are of the type that will appeal to long-time fans of the band. The gliding “Liquid In, Liquid Out” wonders aloud whether or not the corpses spent too much time drinking and punching the clock. The album’s loudest moment, “When We Were Alive,” with its “You should have seen us in our prime” shout-out, is as much an ode for past days than it is a call for the greatness of life.
Somewhere along their evolutionary arc, the Thermals stopped being a simple punk band that used music as a way to declare how fucking pissed off they were and started becoming a band that could construct powerful albums centered around imaginative story-arcs that put prog-rock loving indie rockers (like the Decemberists) to shame. That the Thermals have some of the best pop chops around is a bonus. Now We Can See might not be fist-clenching Thermals fans’ first choice, but it shows there’s way, way more to the band than fist pumping yellers. They’re built for the long haul.