"Oh my god/ You didn’t know I’d get ferocious," Thao Nguyen sings on her latest album, A Man Alive, out this month from Ribbon Music. These lyrics come from the album’s bass-heavy standout track, "Meticulous Bird," and it’s a declaration of the fearlessness she brings to her fourth studio album. It’s a tough, deeply personal, powerfully dissonant album, and it’s Thao’s strongest to date. She’s back, and she’s not pulling any punches.
Adding grit and urgency to Nguyen’s songs is producer Merrill Garbus, better known as tUnE-yArDs. It’s a genius collaboration; Garbus adds roughness to the album with her knack for rhythmic complexity, her unusual beats paired with echoic layers. The rhythmic chaos is the perfect backdrop for the raw emotion Nguyen brings to these songs, which deal with abandonment– specifically, by her father. "The record is essentially about my relationship with my dad, its trajectory," Nguyen says of A Man Alive. "It’s a document of my life in conjunction with his, even though we’ve always been leading our lives away from each other. Some are optimistic and forgiving, some are the opposite." The album seamlessly explores these opposites, giving us a collection that's raucous, raw and weighty.
Nguyen and Garbus together create an album thick with grit and attitude, all given emotional weight by the vulnerability present in Nguyen’s vocals. She sings openly about the nature of betrayal; the risk we undergo when we love, the knowledge that we can always be left. "This is how the goods get stolen/ no science, just devotion," she spits out on the excellent track "Fool Forever," a spooky and dystopic song reminiscent of getting lost in an unfamiliar city at night. It’s a tug-of-war between disillusionment in another person ("If I can believe in you, I can believe in anything") and coming to terms with the love that one feels, despite the betrayal: "Oh no," she groans, in a call-and-response with herself, answering with a high and ghostly "but I loved you the most/ but I loved you."
This track is followed by the achingly vulnerable "Millionaire," which boasts the album’s strongest lyric: "Oh daddy, I broke in a million pieces/ that makes you a millionaire." It’s a quieter track that nevertheless pierces all the more sharply, calling your attention to each pained word. She’s dealing candidly with abandonment. "We’re not born for departure/ but we do learn to take it," she sings on the lightly dissonant "The Evening." Next is another standout track, "Nobody Dies," with a tough beat and lilting lyrics about the refusal of love: "I sent all of it and then you send it all back to me."
After the storm of "Nobody Dies," it’s a relief to arrive at "Guts," an equally devastating but quieter track, smooth with a silky groove. Her voice slides easily along the slightly jazzy melody; it’s almost a feel-good song if you don’t listen to the lyrics, which disavow Nguyen’s physical ties to her father: "I’ve got the guts/ I don’t need my blood." Her voice rings out, high and clear, at the song’s end, interrupted periodically by mechanical beeps: her clear tone fractured, her message fraught. It’s this fraughtness, the result of Garbus’ strange and intricate production, that adds an urgency and a necessary discordance that keeps anything here from being too pretty.
The urgency builds to the album’s brazen standout, "Meticulous Bird," which has Nguyen speaking in layered wordplay above a bold drumbeat. She’s rhyming, almost rapping, but it’s haunting and eerily melodic. The speaking feels necessary; she’s not doing it as a gimmick or experiment. She’s speaking because she needs to, because she’s expressing something formidable and full of pain, and this is how it comes out of her. The result is both harsh and barefaced, both aggressive and exposed.
It’s this interplay between toughness and vulnerability— and, ultimately, her ability to marry the two— that brings such strength to the album. "Hand to God," the penultimate track, displays this ability: "I show you the metal I am made of/ show you exactly what you’ve been afraid of." She’s admitting to her tough exterior, and she’s offering to remove it; a threatening prospect, perhaps, to the abandoner. She moves seamlessly between this threat and softer moments of calm: "I’m so much older now/ give me peace, give me peace," she sings on the lightly weary "Give Me Peace." Nguyen's voice is perfectly suited to this emotional range: it can growl rawly, it can whisper low, it can float beautifully in her upper register.
The final track, "Endless Love," addresses the ambivalence at the album’s core: the love we feel for others who may abandon us, this devotion that leads to the stealing of the goods. "I’ve got an endless love no one can starve," she sings, which taken alone might be an optimistic and happily vague affirmation. But then she sings, over vocal layers of a melodic la la la, "I don’t want it/ I don’t want it/ carve it on out of me." It’s the knife always hiding behind the heart; the threat behind the promise of love.
Nguyen plays with this in the video for the album's first track, "An Astonished Man," directed by Brook Linder. The video shows Nguyen under siege by multiple nightmares in a haunted house; there’s threat of quite literal pain here, typical images of horror movie fear. But the video develops, and we see that the blood is fake, and her seemingly disembodied head is an illusion. And the cloaked figure wreaking the terror; well, that turns out to be Thao, too. So where does the fear come from? Who is the attacker? The song sets up these ambivalences as the album's themes, addressing Nguyen's father in both threat ("I must find and capture an astonished man," "You don’t look for me/I will look for you,") and mercy ("hold him til he knows he is forgiven").
A Man Alive has depths that will take many enjoyable listens to explore. Nguyen's lyrics, along with the perfectly tight backing of her band The Get Down Stay Down and the dissonant production by Garbus, give us a tough and gorgeous puzzle of an album. It’s an album that’s not holding back. She may not arrive at any answers, but she skillfully illuminates a vast emotional complexity. It’s a soundtrack to life’s discordance, an ambivalence toward love and a disillusioned knowing of betrayal. Thao & The Get Down Stay Down have brought ferocity, and the result is rich, fraught and astounding.
Photo credit: Maria Kanevskaya
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