It begins with an act of divine intervention. “God reached his hand down from the sky,” sings Hutch Harris. “He flooded the land, then he set it afire/ He said, ‘Fear me again, you know I’m your father/ Remember that no one can breathe underwater.’”
The melody, already rapid-fire agitprop in the style of early-80s Billy Bragg, intensifies, and a drumbeat. “So bend your knees and bow your heads/ Save your babies, here’s your future.” And then Harris is screaming, “Yeah, here’s your future,” and the guitars get loud and the drums get loud and if heads aren’t already nodding, they probably are now.
For me, The Thermals’ “Here’s Your Future” has one of the most riveting openings to a punk rock record I’ve heard in the last ten years. It’s also lyrically clumsy, politically ham-fisted, and rarely approaches subtlety. And I rarely go a week without listening to some part of it.
The core of the group, Hutch Harris and Kathy Foster, had played together in groups before this one; listening to The Thermals beside, say, the duo recordings they released under the name Hutch & Kathy, it’s pretty clear that the same sensibility is at work. 2006’s The Body The Blood The Machine, the album that “Here’s Your Future” opens, honed a particular direction for them, towards more thematically focused works; the album as meditation on a particular topic. The two albums that they’ve made since then, 2009’s Now We Can See and 2010’s Personal Life have both taken on larger conceptual frameworks but done so more elegantly, without some of the ham-fistedness that shows up here. Here, The Thermals have set these ten songs in a near-future United States overtaken by a particularly conservative and bigoted strain of Christianity.
The collages that dot the album’s artwork — an aesthetic descendent of Dead Kennedys collaborator Winston Smith and the juxtaposition-prone John Yates — are not subtle as they evoke rote Christian imagery and Bush-era culture clashes. The cover features Jesus with his eyes covered by a black bar, and other art features the Ten Commandments overlapping the Capitol’s architecture, a heavily redacted document with “ATTENTION ESCAPISTS!” at the top, and a car’s rear-view mirror where surging flames are visible.
Over the course of The Body The Blood The Machine’s ten songs, some of them frenetic in their tempo and others content to proceed with a stately chug, the society described on the album is delineated; the narrator of several of these songs vacillates between wanting to run from this society and (in “A Return to the Fold”) embracing it. If you’re thinking Nineteen Eighty-Four here, you’re in the right ballpark. There’s more than a little fascism in the society described — from the references to a “new master race” in the opener to the mention of “Nazi halos” in “I Might Need You to Kill.” Listening to these songs, it isn’t clear if Harris and Foster are suggesting that this is the end point of modern conservatism or if they’ve opted to go for a worst of all possible worlds, one where a kind of Christian Identity-based state has arisen. In the end, it might not matter — The Body The Blood The Machine is a powerful album, but it isn’t a particularly nuanced one.
I’ve never been sure why this album has gripped me as much as it does. I have friends who experienced in their youth a give-and-take between fundamentalist Christianity and punk rock, and others who have told stories of faiths that aren’t too far removed from the borderline-fascist creed referenced here. This year, I’ve read Jeanette Winterson’s terrifying account of growing up in a repressive branch of Christianity in her memoir Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? I’ve read the political writers Will Saletan and Ross Douthat discuss the evolution of Christianity, and the ways in which it’s been adopted by the politically conservative.
This has not been my experience with Christianity. I grew up Episcopalian. There wasn’t much in the way of repression to be found there: no fear of damnation, no conflict between the books I read and the messages I heard in church on Sunday mornings. And while I can remember driving home from church with a Bad Religion tape playing on my car’s stereo, I never found much transgressive about my listening habits and the faith I’d been raised in, even as I got more and more into punk rock. About the only part of this album that really resonates with any vestige of my younger self is Harris’s line in “A Pillar of Salt” about “our filthy bodies,” though that (for me) had little to do with any concept of sin and desire.
For all that I find some of the imagery and wordplay here heavy-handed, though, there’s no rule that punk rock needs to be subtle. For every Against Me! playing textual and narrative games with their lyrics to a smart poltical end, there’s a Team Dresch, who well understand that the best political critiques are often the loudest. (“Hate The Christian Right” is an utterly brutal attack on a specific series of conservative politics; it’s loud and savage in its sentiments, and it’s impossible to forget.) The Body The Blood The Machine isn’t exactly subtle, but it’s not like it needs to be.
Even so, that doesn’t explain why this album hits so close to home for me — there are plenty of punk records that hit on a visceral level, but haven’t wormed themselves into my head the way this one has. My own mild philosophical differences with Episcopalianism seem insufficient grounds for my gut-level appreciation of such a gut-level attack on Christianity.
And yet, for all that I would probably point a newcomer to The Thermals to Now We Can See or Personal Life, it’s The Body The Blood The Machine that I return to again and again, looking for that same thrill and that same rush. I don’t think that this is an example of the tired old “punk rock became my religion” trope, but I also worry that it isn’t far from it, that my attraction to this album suggests that its fears of the allure of an all-controlling religious devotion are more resonant than I might like to admit. Alternately, as Harris sings with equal parts elation and terror: here’s your future.