It seems likely that many listeners will dismiss The Thermals’ The Body, The Blood, The Machine as a bit of unthinking, anti-Christian propaganda. Or worse, they’ll dismiss it as juvenile provocation, an experiment in winding people up. Now, don’t misunderstand: this album is stridently anti-Christian and decidedly provocative. In fact, it makes Green Day’s much-lauded American Idiot seem a bit tame. But—but!—it’s also messy and difficult, filled with lyrics so sharp that they cut you no matter how you hold them and songs from points of view that wriggle and squirm when you try to pin them down. (This is meant as a compliment, by the way.) And it’s all set to some amazingly catchy, wonderfully noisy pop-punk.
The first track, "Here’s Your Future," is largely a re-telling of the story of Noah and the flood. Here’s the bit that’s tripped me up every time I’ve heard it: So, we’re packing our things / We’re building a boat / We’re gonna create / The new master race / ‘Cos we’re so pure / Oh, Lord, we’re so pure.
It’s an astonishing spin on a story that still—despite my best efforts—primarily calls to mind rainbows, doves and lousy watercolor pictures. It’s that unexploded bomb of a phrase in the middle of it—"master race"—that makes me do the aural equivalent of a double take. Green Day might have put noses out of joint by comparing modern day America to Nazi Germany, but extending the idea back to a beloved story in Genesis seems more likely to bloody noses and break legs. But isn’t there something accurate in this description of the flood?
The album moves from Genesis to a dystopian vision of America where the USA is a theocracy that tramples the rights of individuals and other nations. "Power Doesn’t Run on Nothing," the second-to-last song, chugs along in an eminently catchy way while summarizing energy policy in America: Our power doesn’t run on nothing / It runs on blood / And blood is easy to obtain / When you have no shame
Infidels, apostates and unbelievers, the album suggests, always have been and ever shall be at the mercy of chosen people. Do you think it’s fair? the song asks, Do you think it’s fair? Do you think we care? The Body, The Blood, The Machine is brash and angry, fidgety and mean, but at heart it’s wondering about the same things Bob Dylan did when he observed that you "don’t ask questions with God on your side."
And yet there are moments on the album that aren’t so easily quantified. "Return to the Fold," right in the middle of things, seems to suggest an alternate mode of belief, one that I honestly find pretty appealing. The song is slower than most of the other tracks and is almost gentle in its treatment of religion. Maybe when I die, it suggests, I won’t die escaping / I’ll die returning to the fold. I’m not sure what that means. (Is someone repenting for trying to escape this theocratic America? Is someone repenting after having joined the theocracy?) But there’s something in it—and the music—that’s oddly comforting. And this, I think, is what keeps The Body, The Blood, The Machine from being merely polemical.
The Thermals aren’t just rejecting what they think America’s become, they’re suggesting an alternative built on love and individual belief. That sounds alright to me.