Welcome back to The Thermals. Personal Life sounds like it has come from a band that has followed the Superchunk model of maturing from snotty punks into, well, adulthood. That isn’t to say that the band has altogether given up on its ways of old. It’s more like The Thermals have found more than one way to express itself.
This album has a subdued, self-reflective tone to it. Where past efforts have been brash and speedy, this one takes its time and delivers messages of love(!) instead of messages of insubordination. What does it mean when the most rollicking track on a Thermals record is entitled, “Your Love Is So Strong”? In fact, much of the album’s lyrical bent can almost be surmised from the song titles alone: “You Changed My Life,” “Not Like Any Other Feeling,” and the title track “Personal Life.” But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows and unicorns. Even the ostensible love songs subvert the typical love-song paradigms. “Your Love Is So Strong” isn’t about love being strong, actually, but about it being so fragile that it “melts in the sun” and “crumbles to dust.”
The trio continues to hew to its formula of barre chords and high-strung vocals. The bass and drums don’t really challenge the order, either, and underlie the music with predictable and unobtrusive patterns and changes. “A Reflection” and “I Don’t Believe You” have particularly memorable melodies, like a stripped-down Green Day. The latter even has its “oh oh oh oh” refrains just so. As with some of the other tracks, there’s a Buzzcocks pop-song kernel at the heart of these.
By keeping the music and the playing spare and unadorned, we’re left to focus on the lyrics. The overall message of Personal Life seems to be that the promise of love is just as likely to exasperate and disappoint as it is to fulfill and reward. That’s adulthood for you.