There’s nothing more exhilarating than listening to a song which is bursting with ideas – a song where you genuinely don’t know what’s going to happen next, where it sounds like the creator has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at the composition and then thought ‘hang on, let’s throw the kitchen sink in there as well’.
Thao Nguyen’s fourth album is full of songs like this, and it sounds like something of a rebirth for the San Francisco-based artist. It’s not that her previous material wasn’t particularly good, but her brand of breezy folk never really stood out from the crowd. This time around, for A Man Alive, she’s enlisted Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs on production duties, and much of the time it sounds like an early follow-up to Garbus’ Nikki-Nack.
There’s always been something of the left-field about Thao And The Get Down Stay Down though – their last album included a collaboration with Joanna Newsom for one thing – but A Man Alive turns it up to ten. It’s a departure that suits them though: in its most successful moments, such as Meticulous Bird and Slash Burn, sounding like the most amount of fun you’ll hear on a record all year.
Meticulous Bird, in particular, is one of the most exciting things you’ll hear all year, one of those songs that’s impossible to sit still during – a gloriously off-kilter rap turned chant full of wordplay and the sort of fizzling energy that has Garbus’ fingerprints all over it. It’s a similar story with the slinky opener Astonished Man, which is the type of song in which you hear something different contained within it every time you hear it.
There’s just a strange oddity to much of A Man Alive which makes it such a refreshing listen – it’s certainly accessible, but only in the same way that Annie Clark of St Vincent is accessible: this is music that you can’t just have on in the background, you have to make an effort to listen to it. So the woozy, discordant rhythms of Departure take their time to reveal themselves, or something like Fool Forever, which originally seems like a bit of directionless dirge, eventually transforms into an addictive funk workout.
It’s also an oddly touching, heartfelt record, once you strip away all the impressive technical accomplishments. Millionaire is a sad, bruised ballad soaked in tremolo guitar, all about Nguyen’s absent father (“Oh daddy, I broke in a million pieces” runs one line), while Hand To God addresses the same subject, with Nguyen decrying that she’s “done so hard to do right” underneath some Garbus-patented rhythmic hooks.
Yet what really sticks in the mind is the sense of joy and abandonment that Thao And The Get Down Stay Down can engender in you with much of this record. This is a real meeting of minds in the best sense – two of the most creative and inventive minds on the US west coast, no less – and we can but hope that there’ll be more collaborations between them in the not too distant future.