"People really like us in Germany," says Hutch Harris, discussing the panic attack he had after finishing the Thermals' latest album. "I didn't want to offend anyone there by using Nazism and comparing it to the Bush administration." The way he mixes snot-nosed sarcasm with delirious worry on The Body, The Blood, The Machine, it's tough to tell which he thinks is worse.
His worries were understandable. In America, the only people seriously worried about the 43rd president ushering in a Fourth Reich are those who also think Al Franken is funny. In Germany, though, W became a lost cause just after 9/11. Since, he's become a figure around whom swirls the palpable specter of destabilization and menace. Among punk kids most of all.
Needless to say, then, German youth love the album almost as much as NPR's aging hipsters seem to. The album, a tale of near-future American fascism that warns of the inevitable collapse caused by too much religion in government, has enjoyed accolades at home and abroad that are uncharacteristic of post-millennial punk. In addition to NPR, which named it the third-best album of 2006, The Body, The Blood, The Machine made waves with erudite slackers the A/V Club and Web tastemakers Pitchfork. Even Spin -- eager to add a pinch of undergrad pop crit to their painfully insincere hipster cynicism -- fawningly/disparagingly called it a "young-adult Book of Job." All of which is to say The Body, The Blood, The Machine is, without doubt, the Thermals' best-received record to date. It's also their most satisfying and complete.
That's not to say it was easy. After original drummer Jordan Hudson left in late 2005, remaining members Harris and Kathy Foster were left pondering the fate of a year's work on what would have been their third album. It would have had at least eight songs. It would have been, according to primary songwriter Harris, "really slow and heavy and dark" -- an album "comparing a relationship breaking down to society breaking down." It would have been called We Sleep in a Holy Bed. It would have been a nice counterpoint to 2004's F---in' A, a limber mix of volatile politics and youth anthems.
They liked the songs, Harris says, but felt weighed down by them. By the time Hudson left, the songs on the album were almost a year old, and Harris and Foster both felt they'd moved on artistically. "Kathy and I wanted to write some new songs," Harris says, "but we wanted to be really excited about [doing] it." The only way to generate that excitement, they felt, was to scrap the album and begin again.
Whether the relationship breakdown Holy Bed had referenced was that of Harris, Foster and Hudson isn't clear. In light of The Body, The Blood, The Machine, though, the societal breakdown in question is unmistakable. "I was thinking the lyrics were going to be political," he recalls thinking, a few months and half an album later, "but I didn't expect to put so much religion into it."
Yet there it was, five or six mostly finished songs feverishly documenting a fictional theocracy fighting unending wars abroad while exerting moral and cultural hegemony at home. It's a future Harris' paranoia finds in the present, lurking around every abstinence initiative and every Near East war. Divested of relationship drama, or perhaps ignoring it, Holy Bed's other major theme had taken on a life, and concept album, of its own.
Harris' unease with the intermingling of faith and politics was previously evident in harangues scattered across the band's first two albums. Most poignantly, 2004's "God and Country" found Harris abandoning religion in a rigid post-9/11 climate that allowed no variance between one's faith in God and faith in a wartime president.
The band has never been this predatory, though, in pursuit of a cure. The Body, The Blood, The Machine is exhilarating if for no other reason than as a chronicle of how adversity can breed clarity and purpose.
The album, though, still bears the scars and sinew of a crisis record. Musical forms that go well beyond what Harris describes as the band's usual "three-chord punk rock" suggest a band in creative transition, especially on "Pillar of Salt," one of the purest pop hooks this side of Weezer's "Buddy Holly."
Meanwhile, experiments with lyrical structure and narrative voice that holler, plaint and caterwaul demonstrate a storyteller straining (and eventually breaking) his self-imposed limits. The pockmarks and imperfections that arose from such a tempest of creation only make the album stronger. Harris owns his faults and uncertainties in a way his targeted administration never will.
"We're escaping," he wails on "Pillar of Salt," "so we won't have to die / we won't have to deny / our dirty god / our dirty bodies." Harris knows he's being paranoid, creating a world where mere bedroom naughtiness is grounds for extermination. He freely admits it. Yet the paranoia sticks, and feels oddly prescient. Subtle shifts in frame of reference turn the biblical flood narrative, an act of compassion to millions of contemporary believers, into an act of genocide, not as a matter of fact, but as a matter of perception and belief.
Given that context, the album asks, how do you reconcile a religion of peace to the religiosity of war? Blind obedience is one way, Harris suggests. How do you differentiate, then, between obedience and faith? Here Harris shrugs. Between faith and insanity? Even if you can differentiate, how do you make people listen?
Harris is best suited to that last question. In the dirty, ad hoc process of creating a concept album from a handful of thematically unified songs, he's found a way to craft patchwork unity from wide disparity, creating an impressionistic thesis with opportunistic musicianship, pointed turns of phrase and narrative elements that border on the vaudevillian.
The album begins with "Here's Your Future," a little one-act, one-man play. Harris plays God, Noah and Jesus in a way that sets the album's tone. The song demonstrates the grave task given to both men, the point being not to decry the basis for the faith, but to show the tremendous emotional toll it exacts and the ease with which it can be exploited.
By the end of "I Might Need You to Kill," the repeated line "they follow" is talking about that blind allegiance Harris so abhors. The same line at the beginning, though, has a different meaning. "Locusts, tornados / crosses and Nazi halos," he howls, "They Follow / They Follow." The line becomes a logical device. The image of God as a wrathful warmonger, believes Harris, only creates wrath and warmongering.
It's there that Harris sees the most obvious correlate between the theocracies and oligarchs that prop up Islamic terrorism and the God-fearing administration that has vowed to stop them. "People should be free to practice whatever religion they want," he says, "but when [religion] starts deciding policies and laws and how I have to live, that's dangerous."
The Inlander presents the Thermals with Flee the Century and Yokohama Hooks at CenterStage on Saturday, Feb. 24, at 8 pm. All ages. Full bar (21 and older). Tickets: $10; $12, at the door. Call 747-8243.