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Thao & The Get Down Stay Down
A Man Alive Suzie McCracken , March 14th, 2016 00:00

There's some people that have an incredible talent for linguistic bow-tieing in respect to emotional turmoil – those who can take the concept of despair that sits at the pit of your colon and pack all that density into a handful of syllables. I don't mean the musicians often held up as the great poet-lyricists of our time, I mean more a handful of mid-noughties indie artists whose pop sensibilities have led them to be hugely economical in their observations of modern life. I think OK Go, who are an objectively mediocre band that I adore due to their entire disregard of the embarrassment of joy, are highly underrated in this respect – their line "mediocre people do exceptional things all the time" having a duplicity and beauty that I find breathtaking.

Thao Nguyen has a similar talent, the lead single from A Man Alive, 'Nobody Dies', being a perfect example. The central refrain, "We act like nobody dies", is delivered in a mixture of intonations and paces throughout three and a half minutes of euphoric, glorious pop. No other phrase has hit me in the last few years as being so simultaneously celebratory and sad. Is it a wonderful thing that we celebrate life with a nascent disregard for its brevity? Is it because of the latter that we can manage the former? Or does a momentary falter of Thao's voice as we approach the song's conclusion reveal her sadness at the spectre of youthful narcissism, or indeed the experience of a true loss? It's exciting that this album's most thoughtful line is smuggled in through the trojan horse of it's biggest dance track.

Then on the closing song 'Endless Love' the protagonist admits: "I've got an endless love… I don't want it, I don't want it, carve it on out of me." Nguyen's delivery straddles two approaches – the cuttingly physical followed almost immediately by a bored nonchalance – perfectly encompassing the idea of something being so painful for so long that you are exhausted by it. It's also unsurprising that on an album that deals with the indelible marks left by a father that "drifted in and out" of the Nguyen's family life, that the record is full of blood, guts and malleable pronouns. She serpentines between her own voice and her father's, and there's possibly another male voice in there. It all gets convoluted, but the flashes of metaphor keep it intimate even when the thread of Nguyen's tale is obscured.

As percussive as her previous offerings, A Man Alive is jaunty but perhaps less folky than normal, endowed significantly with the spirit of Tune-Yards' Merill Garbus, the queen of both loop and uke. Many have credited producer Garbus with prompting a leap in the band's sound, and although this album certainly feels indebted, there's plenty of evidence on We The Common to suggest that Nguyen has had a spiritual kinship with her before now, especially in the nursery rhyme-esque stylings of 'City'.

That's not to deny that this album is a step forward, however. 'Meticulous Bird' and 'Hand To God' are particularly fun – the former is a bass-filled schoolyard chant that Nguyen raps over about reclaiming the ownership of her body and being unapologetic for her sometimes intimidating stage presence with the line "Oh my, oh my, oh my god you didn't know I get ferocious." 'Hand To God' meanwhile, is the soundtrack to a confessional luau full of well-placed hand-claps. I'm looking forward to seeing her ferociously deliver both on stage, where I assume this record will take on a full life, buoyed by the new fans that Thao & The Get Down Stay Down have just earned.