It takes all of three songs of Personal Life to know that these are not the same Thermals who made The Body, The Blood, The Machine (possibly the best punk album of the ‘00s) and Now We Can See. There are no songs about turning into pillars of salt or about being dead; there are no allegories that strike out against organized religion; there is, comparatively, hardly any shouting. Instead, five albums in, the Thermals have decided to tone down the invective and turn back to the vaguely upset pop-punk of their 2004 album, Fuckin A. Indeed, the Chris Walla-produced Personal Life splits the difference between that album and the slow burners that have started to take up an increasing portion of every Thermals album (specifically Now We Can See). Granted, the Thermals are still better than any pop-punk competitor, but Personal Life, and its languorous tones, is at the front of the line for 2010’s biggest bummer.
You can’t expect a guy to be pissed off forever (unless that guy is Johnny Rotten), and Hutch Harris has had a pretty good streak, turning his anger at Bush-era evangelism into a monster of an album. But he comes down super hard on Personal Life, bellowing indolently over hardly moving grinders (“Never Listen to Me,” “A Reflection”) and talk-singing self-help anthems (“I’m Gonna Change Your Life,” “You Changed My Life” and “Not Like Any Other Feeling”). Thematically, the album is allegedly about love, but it’s vague in a way that the Thermals seemed past being; this is after all, a band that released an album about escaping America. Even the album’s semi-highlight -- the power-pop of “I Don’t Believe You” -- trades in broad platitudes. “Say you’re wasting away, say you’re wasting your days, I don’t believe you,” Harris shouts multiple times before leading the oh-oh-ohing chorus, never really providing much beyond that.
The worst thing you can say about Personal Life is that it’s hopelessly proficient. There isn’t a song here that truly rises above the rest, and nothing here is as offensive as anything you’d hear at a stop on the Warped Tour. It’s just a resolutely OK album that seems just as suited for a restaurant lobby as a punk show. The Thermals are still a pretty good band on Personal Life, it’s just that we’d gotten used to them being great.
The move from Sub Pop to Kill Rock Stars seems to have been a healthy switch for Portland indie punkers the Thermals. It was only last year that the trio released Now We Can See, their debut for the label, but productivity must be in the air at KRS, because the Thermals have already got another LP ready. Unlike the band’s past efforts, which manufactured themes of death, dystopia and politics into nasally, sneering garage-pop, this record's lyrics are meditative and love-centric -- not surprising, given it's titled Personal Life. Former Thermals collaborator Chris Walla (of Death Cab for Cutie) produced the album, which was recorded to tape, mixed to tape, and mastered from tape. Audiophiles, rejoice: You can listen to this love-fest in hi-fi. Or make out to it. Or bounce around to it. Your choice.