Written By: Andrew Sedo
The, somehow, fitfully fluid bassline on A Man Alive’s opener “Astonished Man” sets the mood for the entire project. Thao Nguyen puts her aptly named backing band to use, crafting a special mix of movable beats and soul searching realism. Spastically spacious drums, interestingly precise discord, and a generally upbeat tempo hide the dark truth lurking just behind the neo-funk facade.
On “The Evening” Nguyen sings, almost surprised, “All this time / A Man Alive!”, in context, we see the album’s title is referencing the realization of her estranged father’s very existence. It becomes clearer on the more obvious, “Departure,” where Nguyen offers up the heart wrenching pun “Fight for me in the modern day / Half of all my blood in vein” which features a fitting background assist from Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs fame.
The gravitas of A Man Alive comes from Nguyen’s struggle with her existence and that of her absentee father. She owes her life to a man who didn’t want her. Equal parts distressing as it is beautiful, Nguyen explodes from each record with a oxymoronic purpose; that being, both showing her father how beautiful his creation was and is, but also bemoaning a life that could have been enriched without a defeating initial abandonment. Given the heavy subject matter, Nguyen manages to make every track incredulously bouncy. Even the macabre, noise-esque “Nobody Dies” is inherently bob-able.
Ironically, the album reaches fever pitch on the slowed down “Guts”, where Nguyen ponders “You know I’m so easy to find / You won’t come get your girl.” questioning how much she has to do to gain her father’s attention, she is a bona fide star after all. The gritty, (once again) Garbus infused “Fool Forever” has Nugyen exploring why she still hangs on her father’s absence “oh mighty man of war, how we tether together / I know you’ll make a fool of me forever” implying she may never be at peace with the Ouroboran relationship that empowers her art, whilst simultaneously crippling her concepts of loyalty and righteousness.
By the time we reach “Endless Love” Nguyen has come to terms with her contradictory predicament as she bemoans her feelings by metrically repeating “I’ve got an endless love, no one can starve / I don’t want it, I don’t want it, carve it on out of me.” Thus, her burden is just that. An unjust quest for approval and acceptance. Avoiding cliches in this case is quite nearly impossible, as A Man Alive is the proverbial rose grown from the concrete, rainbow after the storm, light funnelling tunnel, etc. Thao & The Down Stay Down take us from the tumult of solitude, to the realization of wanton abandonment, without missing a step. In a way, A Man Alive is both a middle finger and a cathartic meditation on what it is to be the product of dissatisfaction. A polite thank you and a defiant fuck you, to the man she owes everything and nothing at all.