Thao's idiosyncrasies make her unique, but also hamper her accessibility. But it pays dividends for listeners willing to give A Man Alive a few chances.
It took me a few listens to A Man Alive to really get Thao Nguyen’s vibe. There’s something wonderfully off-kilter about her songwriting, which is solidly in the indie rock genre, but also includes heavy influences from hip-hop beats and an idiosyncratic use of sparse arrangements. These idiosyncrasies give her music a unique flavor that isn’t necessarily immediately accessible. But it certainly pays dividends for listeners willing to give her a chance.
The Get Down Stay Down use guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards, but are perfectly willing to leave one or more of the instruments on the sidelines depending on Nguyen’s whims. The result is a series of fascinating arrangements that take relatively straightforward songs and render them just a bit odd. A Man Alive’s opener, “Astonished Man”, begins with Nguyen’s staccato singing, a funky drumbeat, and a simple clean guitar line. The second verse brings in a buzzing synth sound a different guitar line, but it’s only on the song’s chorus that it feels like the full band is playing. When the song returns to verses, the guitar riff has changed yet again. “Departure” uses a small host of string instrument sounds in its opening before settling on synthesized kick drum and handclap pattern to supply its main rhythm. Its refrain pulls in a massive synth bass sound to give it a huge underlying buzz. All the while, the strings flit in and around the rhythm section while Nguyen sings over it all.
This is the kind of musical choice that comes off as strange at first. But it makes for more interesting listening than the typical choices. More typical arrangement choices would likely leave Nguyen’s music much more pedestrian sounding and blunt its impact. Case in point, “Guts”, with a few small tweaks, would be a fairly bland ballad. Nguyen’s delicate, sometimes barely-there vocal delivery imbues the song with an urgency which is reinforced by her refrain, “I’ve got the guts / I don’t need my blood." She keeps the music equally delicate, using electric piano, a barely there bassline, and a drumbeat that emphasizes quiet cymbal strikes and simple snare hits. This pays off later in the song, when the energy level suddenly picks up from all parties and climaxes with an extended high note from Nguyen when she sings “For meeeeee!!!” And just to twist it a bit more, that “me” is filled with a repeating audible pop that implies that instead of holding out the note, they just looped the same single second of audio about 15 times. Why? Who knows, but it’s certainly a striking choice.
The moments of Nguyen going all out are few enough on A Man Alive that each song that does has an outsize impact. “Meticulous Bird” is a straight up slice of '90s-style alternative hip-hop. The drumbeat is the typical Amen Break that was so popular in the '90s, while the active bassline and collection of distorted synth sounds resemble both Soul Coughing and Luscious Jackson. All the while, Nguyen raps aggressively and effectively over the top. On the other end of the spectrum, the loping rocker “Nobody Dies” finds the guitar, bass, and drums all locking in together in a driving rhythm. The half-spoken refrain, “We act like / Nobody dies” may not be the catchiest chorus around, but it gains power through repetition.
The album’s final two songs have a strong lyrical point of view to go with interesting music. “Hand to God” puts Nguyen in the shoes of a male private detective struggling with a woman, and features one of the album’s biggest earworms. Finale “Endless Love” puts an interesting twist on a very old lyrical concept. Nguyen states, “I’ve got an endless love / No one can starve” in the verse before concluding in the chorus that “I don’t want it / Carve it on out of me.” Musically, the song drifts along on a melodic bassline that provides the main riff for the song, but leaves space for a pair of hugely distorted guitar solos. It’s repetitive, but that repetition sort of underlines how easy it is to fall back on simple love lyrics in pop music with no one batting an eye.
Having an album that listeners need to dig into to fully appreciate can cut both ways. But this is Thao and the Get Down Stay Down’s fourth record, so their established audience should be accustomed to their quirks. Hopefully potential new fans will give A Man Alive a thorough chance to win them over, because it’s worth the time.