Since releasing We Brave Bee Stings and All in 2008, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down have delivered album after album (Know Better Learn Faster in 2009 and We the Common in 2013) of a signature folk rock sound. A bluesy, beat-filled, back-and-forth indie groove, it is always coupled with the instantly recognizable blend of shout and sing of Thao Nguyen’s voice.
On A Man Alive! (2016), the band’s fourth album, Nguyen has matured. In both style and songwriting, the album is a departure from past work. With Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs credited as a producer, the mood of Nguyen and company has evolved from a smooth, gentler beat-focused hop to a scratchier, darker, steadier bang. It is more “stay down” than “get down,” one might say. On the first track, “Astonished Man,” Nguyen sings the verses “I wait, so worry worry / I won’t hurry, hurry,” calling out with a force. These lines continue to resonate in the listener’s head even as the song progresses, a metaphorical, heavier stomping new to the band’s work.
The track most reminiscent of the older style of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down is “The Evening,” in which Nguyen hollers in her usual, dreamily melodious way. (The way the line “Ooh child” sounds on this track is magical.) The familiarity is soon interrupted by a diversity of sounds in the accompaniment, almost like a musical screeching, one that is unique to their fourth album. The single “Nobody Dies” also does the work of balancing the old and new—the song sounds like an anthem, but its lyrics take the listener somewhere deeper. Amid rapid, pounding drums and a distinct muffled beat, Nguyen slows in tempo when singing the chorus: “We act like nobody dies / You act like nobody dies / I’ll act like nobody dies.” As “Nobody Dies” continues, Nguyen sings, “Who could bother with a father.” These and other lyrics throughout the album suggest that this release was more about Nguyen’s personal challenges with her father than anything else.
“Guts,” the slowest, grooviest track on this album, has a sway-inducing rhythm that betrays the severity of its piercing lyrics (among them “I’ve got the guts, I don’t need my blood,” “You know I’m so easy to find / You won’t come get your girl,” and “I want peace / Enough for two”). This song ultimately sounds more like a raw tribute to something, perhaps a feeling of age or of having grown. It is complete with mixed feelings long reflected upon, sometimes moving forward and sometimes moving backward in achieving emotional closure. Finally, the lyrics of “Give Me Peace” include Nguyen’s question: “What if I need my own enemy?”
A Man Alive! is a step in a new direction, and we will have to wait to see whether the work of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down will stay on this path. In the meantime, listening to this album seems to give insight into the mind of a powerful songwriter as well as her collaborator, friend, and talented producer Garbus. The result of their collaboration is an incredibly original album.
Article by Valerie Law