Portland’s the Thermals have spent the last 11 years making albums inspired by society’s flaws. They’ve voiced their opinions on religion and politics on previous releases, such as the acclaimed The Body, The Blood, The Machine and more recently Personal Life, and the punk trio returns on Desperate Ground to bring light to another world problem: violence.
Throughout the album, the lyrical and musical elements come together in an oxymoronic fashion, offering upbeat, power-pop melodies to back up the darker, bloodier lyrics. Opening track and lead single “Born To Kill” epitomizes this combination. Vocalist Hutch Harris chants, “I was born to kill/I was made to slay/Unafraid to spill blood on the land/When you command I will,” to the tune of a vibrant, catchy melody. While the carnal and war-hungry phrases saturate the majority of the tracks, the band ends with a silver lining. Closing track “Our Love Survives” echoes the hopefulness of humanity, closing the album with the message “Our love survives, it will never die.” Even while ranting about injustice and criticizing the state of just about everything, the Thermals are idealistic in wishing for a hopeful future.
Although new listeners may be drawn to the approachable pop-punk angst of Harris’s vocals and the power-chord-dominated guitar riffs, older Thermals fans will rejoice in the band’s return to the raw, unrefined sound found on More Parts Per Million. Tracks like “You Will Be Free” and “You Will Find Me” proudly radiate the recorded-in-a-garage auditory aesthetic, a gritty, noisy characteristic that mirrors the harsher lyrical content. Violently breaking from the speakers, Harris’s vocals flood the listener’s ears, personifying the album’s message of the rougher aspects of humanity.
While the band’s return to its gruffer roots on Desperate Ground has its redeeming qualities, the reliance on pop-punk catchiness feels like a crutch. Rather than carrying a sense of maturity and growth, Desperate Ground regresses into cookie-cutter melodies with oversimplified power-chord-led rhythms. Still, there’s no denying that those more direct arrangements will appeal to a wider audience and amplify the progressive messages, while the continuation of an impassioned delivery will be enough to keep the older fans hooked.