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Thao & The Get Down Stay Down’s ‘A Man Alive’ has the guts

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James/Flickr)

(James/Flickr)

Alt-folk legend Thao Nguyen, the lead singer of The Get Down Stay Down, recently spoke with NPR about the band’s fourth record, “A Man Alive,” and delved into her relationship with her father.

“This record is me releasing whatever I have to,” she said. “(I’m) trying to move forward, to forgive. But then a few songs later I feel like I could leave him for dead.”

But don’t let that background make you think “A Man Alive” is a sparse, somber experience à la Sufjan Stevens’ “Carrie & Lowell.” Although Nguyen employs a somewhat similar refining of instrumentation, the record’s electronic alt-rock makeover is her most sonically audacious move yet. The drums are punchier, the guitars more discordant and Nguyen’s vocals frequently evolving into a shout more aggressive than anything on past albums, such as on the sexual-assault combatting “Meticulous Bird” when she shouts “Oh my god, you didn’t know how I get ferocious.”

“A Man Alive” could have been Nguyen’s soft, emotional record, but instead it’s a full inversion of those “deep” signifiers–an extroverted analysis of an introverted subject matter.

The album’s stylistic switch-up can be attributed to the production work of tUnE-yArDs’ Merrill Garbus, who also produced Nguyen’s collaboration album with indie-pop legend and fellow ukulele enthusiast Mirah. That record’s noisier, rhythmic cuts, especially clamoring opener “Eleven,” are good reference points for the sonic shift of “A Man Alive,” which seems to deliver on the promise of a style that once felt like a one-off for its singer.

“A Man Alive” is distinctly Nguyen, but Garbus’ M.O., a balancing act between master class performance and grimy studio trickery, is present from the beginning. “Astonished Man” kicks the record off with a chopped up vocal sample, only to be overtaken by a bloated synth bass line moments later. “Departure” builds up to a cluttered electronic breakdown that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on tUnE-yArDs’ recent “Nikki Nack,” while “Fool Forever” produces a self-lacerating effect by bookending each line with muffled, taunting laughter. These embellishments don’t take away from Nguyen’s characteristically strong guitar and vocal performance, but rather assist in carrying them into their new electronic groove-based outfitting.

Cohesion has never been an issue in Nguyen’s catalogue, but the record’s more unified sonic inventory also expertly bolsters its central theme. Where the previous album “We the Common” omnivorously drew from various branches of folk-pop, (Huge single with a woo-hoo’d hook? Check. Raw garage-rock outlier? Check. Country duet with Joanna Newsom? Check.), the songs here exist in a more concentrated universe. High compression handclaps, atonal guitar solos, or a song’s title popping up in the lyrics of a different song, all act as uniting forces. Nguyen’s releases typically have some large concept behind them–“We the Common” was based on her work in prison advocacy – but never has the music felt this in-sync with the ideas of the lyrics.

The songs most heavily focused on Nguyen’s father find her running the gamut of emotions associated with estranged parenthood. “Hold him till he knows he is forgiven” she requests on one song; “I know you’ll make a fool of me forever,” she snarls on another; “Oh daddy, I’m broken in a million pieces, that makes you a millionaire,” she sighs a few minutes later. The album’s built on a multiple-decade experience, and the varying viewpoints Nguyen conjures act as both a chronicle of the events as well as a map of her own psyche in relation to them.

Late-album highlight “Hand to God” seems to find Nguyen singing from her father’s perspective. Over breezy funk instrumentation, she offers him a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal, questioning the place of his faith in the real world by flipping absolution with instability. “My hands to God to save her/how can I save? I’ve so much to pay for,” she (he?) ponders. “A Man Alive” is not an indictment and Nguyen never directly frames its subject as a villain. For all its unpacking, the inclusion of multiple views creates a refreshingly three-dimensional representation, and one that puts Nguyen’s pain into conversation instead of stagnantly ruminating on it.

The strongest song on “A Man Alive” is also its most impactful moment. “Guts” is an R&B slow jam about finding strength in yourself regardless of parental validation. “I’ve got the guts, I don’t need my blood,” she sings in the record’s most uncluttered hook. It’s one of the few moments that sound like she’s moving forward, her voice sliding into a blissfully Garbus-like loop and floating away. The rest of the record isn’t as comfortable, but that’s the point. To be alive is to be in a shifting state of emotion, and while clarity is the end goal, “A Man Alive” is about the journey.

Will Doolittle can be reached at [email protected]

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