Operating with the mixed blessing of a highly distinctive voice — in every sense of that word — Thao Nguyen could presumably get along all right taking an easier, less deliberatively disruptive course. She could probably make a string of records laden with relatively straightforward, folk-tinged rock songs and keep herself and her band, the Get Down Stay Down, in regular music biz work for some time. Instead, she ties composition into tricky knots, constantly seeking the challenging dynamic, as if enough effort in that direction will finally create the song that can surprise her in midstream. As a listener, it’s equal parts thrilling and daunting. On the latest album with her band, Nguyen pushes the twisty sonic abstractions as far as she ever has. I still can’t quite figure out if it’s dizzying or dazzling. The safest bet is that it’s both.
A Man Alive is produced by Merrill Garbus, better known as Tune-Yards (or, St. Vincent help me, tUnE-yArDs), who previously oversaw Nguyen’s 2011 collaboration with Mirah. Perhaps inevitably, this can make the album sound a little too much as though it belongs in a slightly different place in the record store’s “T” section, like some thick layering from a work-in-progress Tune-Yards project somehow slipped in during a woozy, late night mixing scramble. No matter how much Nguyen has shown inclinations in that direction before (I heard some distinct echoes when I reviewed We the Common, the previous album from Thao & the Get Down Stay Down), it’s hard to ignore the the occasionally rumble strip studio burbling suggesting the vehicle is slipping a bit from its proper path.
It can only slip so far, though, as there’s a piercing emotion that keeps the album tethered to Nguyen. She’s indicated that A Man Alive is largely about her problematic relationship, or lack thereof, with her estranged father. Though Nguyen’s penchant for jabbing language that conveys slippery emotional nuance more than direct information can sometimes make the thesis obscure, there are plenty of instances when the anger and anguish, and resulting defiance, are clear as can be. “Guts” sounds like a torchy jazz song turned inside out, proceeding with a halting quality that suggests it’s feeling its way out of a dark cave. But when Nguyen sings, “I got the guts/ I don’t need my blood,” there’s no doubt that she’s got a surplus of determination. There’s no actual hesitancy there, just forceful reportage on the familial betrays she’s faced down (“Taught to be loyal/ Never shown loyalty”).
That candor is bracing throughout, commanding attention no matter the wash of sounds both complementing and pushing against it. “Nobody Dies” is one of those tracks on which the lyrics become an experiment in shifting rhythm, but the strident dynamics of the song could easily devolve into empty experimentation — or worse, mere noodling — without the hard confession and yearning of lines such as “Won’t you come for me/ I got love to give/ Too scared to leave.” Nguyen has a talent for making a song simultaneously lilting and aggressive, as if its meant to be sung which perched on an ornate swing fashioned out of razor wire. “The Evening” is ferocious and enticing, an undulating flower that can somehow snap a finger clean off. “Meticulous Bird” hits like a counter-punch fully telegraphed and still landing with a bruising authority. These tracks are wholly representative of the complicated jolts the album routinely delivers. Surely that’s why Nguyen doesn’t bother with simpler creative routes. There’s no reason to do so when she can consistently strike this hard.