The Thermals have never shied away from dark topics. On their seventh studio album, We Disappear, the punk rock trio pick up where 2013’s Desperate Ground left off, only this time they’re confronting death, immortality, and heartbreak with lyrics too blunt to do damage. Singer-guitarist Hutch Harris, bassist Kathy Foster, and drummer Westin Glass sound exhausted by their own words. It’s a 10-song stroll through mediocrity, but with ex-Death Cab For Cutie guitarist Chris Walla behind the production board, the band wrings just enough nostalgia and instrumental pep to save some of the record’s songs.
“Our privacy used to be so important to us and now everything has changed — we freely offer once private information about relationships and reveal everything about our day-to-day lives,” Harris says in the album’s press release. “We’re trying to preserve our life digitally so when we’re gone people won’t forget us. We’re using technology to become immortal.” Fair enough. Tumblr lets you archive every diaristic post to be read like a catalog later. Instagram lets you curate the photo album of your glorious life to be judged, printed, and hung at various events. Facebook lets you adjust your account to continue posting content after you die. News flash: Society embraces a style of living where personal information and privacy are no longer synonymous. News flash: You already know this. But We Disappear likes to pretend you don’t.
“If we don’t die tonight/ Tell me it will be alright/ If I never hear every word I fear/ If we don’t die today/ Lie to me anyway,” Harris sings on “If We Don’t Die Today”. Similar straightforward language appears in “Always Never Be” and again in “In Every Way”. The Thermals are thematic on We Disappear and they’re unnecessarily nervous you won’t pick up on it. Death is coming. Make sure you make your mark before it arrives. If you don’t, then … well, we don’t really know, but it’s not fun to imagine, right?
Despite that, The Thermals still roll out a handful of enjoyable singles. Thanks to their knack for feel-good riffs and sporadic drumming, the trio make songs like “My Heart Went Cold” and “The Walls” warrant repeat plays. Others, like “Thinking of You” and “Hey You”, stomp around with the band’s trademark glee, warping themes of heartbreak into a fabric suitable for all.
Leave it to Chris Walla to work much-needed new textures into the band’s sound. He’s responsible for one of the record’s best moments: fuzzy, dissonant, feedback-like synth overriding the end of “The Great Dying”. As Harris sings about time loss and existence, the Putney VCS 3 drags out its delay, illustrating the fear of those very words he’s singing. “Years In a Day” takes this technique and flips it, letting the reverb sing the way ocean waves do on a mild day, lolling rather than crashing. The meditative, atmospheric feel calls to mind Walla’s own work on Death Cab For Cutie’s “Bixby Canyon Bridge”.
Yet for all those old school sine wave sounds, We Disappear is more in tune with modern day technology, be it because they recorded everything on a computer or some other fascination with digital code. Right from the album’s opening track, Harris gets busy pushing heavy-handed lines on technology as a necessary evil: “Into the code, we stay alive/ We will be whole, we will survive/ In the code we will always exist.” The song’s backed by chunky riffs, but his words start to cheapen their weight. The deeper he goes into that world, the harder it is to take him seriously. Songs start to sound like faded Hold Steady tracks that don’t age well. The trio mean it, though, so their sincerity keeps them from swimming in a hole of totally unaware maladroitness.
The rumination on death isn’t patronizing here. At best, they’re the margin notes of a college kid bursting with energy and motivation. At worst, they’re like a middle schooler who’s just come to terms with the inevitability of death and the ways in which it can be romanticized. Whereas 2009’s Now We Can See breathed with lyrical maturity and 2006’s The Body, The Blood, The Machine shook with newly born life, We Disappear finds itself devoid of any real driving energy — not even a lack thereof to mirror the void death leaves behind. In fact, embracing that void would be an excellent way to talk about humans fighting the inevitable, examining that horrifying gap, the space left behind when the Grim Reaper’s scythe comes sweeping. It could be glaring, ominous, and, when viewed through the proper lens, rather touching. The Thermals stay surface level both with their lyricism and their songwriting. Had they dug a little deeper, they could have discussed digital immortality in the face of death by getting us to feel the insurmountable fear bundled at its core. Instead, we’re left being told what we already know.
Essential Tracks: “Hey You”, “Years In A Day”