In best ageing punk tradition, you could say that it’s pretty much back to basics for the Thermals on their sixth album, Desperate Ground. Much of the sonic sophistication that possibly made 2010’s Personal Life one of their less direct collections has been stripped down to the direct, rollicking 4/4 roll of guitar, bass drums that originally projected the Thermals into the lead-lined halls of the smart/loud guitar pantheon.
That Desperate Ground was wrapped up and the band had buggered out of their Hoboken recording studio just hours before Hurricane Sandy eviscerated New Jersey lends an edge to the thrilling sense of musical urgency and revolutionary narrative on evidence right across this album (just think, this could well have been their tragic last album if they’d decided to make Personal Life, Part 2).
It starts as it means to go on with the scintillating gonzo savant punk of ‘Born to Kill’, an oh so upbeat and ironic paean to American death culture. Hutch Harris is in fine voice here, compellingly strident and making a strong case for having the finest male lungs in American rock music – well, in a parallel universe without Hamilton Leithauser at any rate. Nevertheless, it’s his gloriously unfettered yet hugely melodic roar that is the the defining force here. “Before you existed, before you were born / Before we were taken, before we were torn” is one of many defiant fist-punching refrains that comprise ‘You Will Be Free’, before Harris threatens “We are alive, we will fight to the end / We will be free, we will free soon again” as the large red button marked “textbook pop-punk chordage” isn’t so much pressed as kicked in. ‘The Sword by My Side’ is “the last thing my enemies will see”, he cries in another joyous, ahem, stab of short, sharp melodic defiance.
Lyrically and musically, it’s emblematic of the squalling, confrontational thrust of Desperate Ground, which finds Portland’s “accidental super-group” in fine, muscular musical fettle. ‘You Will Find Me’ and Sunset are as romantic as it gets – the former a melodic, searing ode to narcissism, the latter a redemptory and literally uplifting exclamation of moving towards the light. The most exciting thing about this collection of one-,two- and even three- minute long songs is that it not only references that battery-licking jolt that their debut More Parts per Million provided, but also possesses just enough musical sophistication to transcend much of what passes for the mostly sorry genre of pop-punk.
Lovely closing track ‘Our Love Survives’ is as close as Desperate Ground gets to the conventionally epic, but lyrically, it’s another call to arms, legs and whatever spare limbs you can find lying around the wreckage of the shattered society the Thermals see about them. And you can just hear them packing up their gear the very second that the very last chord is captured and hi-tailing it out of NJ with a society-levelling hurricane at their back. It’s nice to have the Thermals back sailing high on irresistibly noisy and righteous ire.