On their sixth album, Desperate Ground, the Thermals ditch the comparably toned-down sounds of 2010’s politically minded Personal Life, which experimented with a number of variably conflicting styles, from gnarled garage rock to cluttered emo balladry, for an approach that more closely resembles 2006’s relentlessly voltaic The Body, The Blood, The Machine. Desperate Ground trims the fat that occasionally decelerated the band’s previous effort, giving way to a collection of songs that, while still exuding a firm dissatisfaction with the U.S. government, significantly turns up the thematic turbulence, dealing with darker, worldlier themes such as the philosophy of war and the inevitability of death.
Taking a page from the Now We Can See playbook, eruptive opener “Born to Kill” cuts right to the chase with a propulsive riff swelling behind frontman Hutch Harris’s impassioned, angular outcries. “I was born to kill/I was made to stay/Unafraid to feel blood on my hands,” he snarls, forcefully setting the stage for the rest of the album. There’s an air of provocative barbarity on each and every track, copiously enveloped in a dense, lo-fi fuzz reminiscent of The Body, The Blood, The Machine. The casualties of combat weigh heavily on Harris’s conscience throughout the album; the first-person narratives overflow with grisly visuals of disturbed soldiers laying waste to countless adversaries, the traumatic aftermath of which slowly eats away at the narrator’s soul. Early highlight “The Sunset” uses inescapable shadows as a metaphor for murderous guilt, and the album’s robust middle section, comprising “I Go Alone,” “The Sword by My Side,” and “Faces Stay with Me,” can be likened to a trilogy of viking battle hymns. Desperate Ground’s curt savagery is effective because it rarely becomes grim; songs like “You Will Find Me” and “Our Love Survives” reveal the buried humanity in Harris’s antiheroes, especially the latter, which brings the album to a close on an unusually upbeat note: “Our love survives, it will always be/No matter if we die, we will live eternally.”
What stops Desperate Ground from eclipsing the Thermals’ best work is its periodical monotony. The album clocks in at only 26 minutes, and yet even its tersest arrangements seem to meld together in a mass of ungainly disquiet. However, the band still demonstrates marked improvement here, by, oddly enough, returning to their rough-edged roots and never looking back.