Thao Nguyen broke through with 2008’s We Brave Bee Stings and All (QRO review), an enjoyable record that kind of felt like kids songs for adults. However, this sound had limits on the following year’s follow-up, Know Better Learn Faster (QRO review), and it was only teaming up with Mirah and producer Merrill Garbus (a.k.a. tUnE-yArDs – QRO live review) on Thao + Mirah (QRO review) that opened up Thao’s possibilities. That continued on her own with We the Common (QRO review), and certainly now on A Man Alive, showcasing an older Thao (again with help from producer gArBuS).
From opener “Astonished Man”, there is more to Nguyen on A Man Alive, starting with that song’s darker elements. She engages in tUnE-yArDs-like rhythmic experimentation on the subsequent “Slash/Burn” and “The Evening”. “Departure”, “Nobody Dies”, and “Guts” are the record’s high points, first Thao pulling off disjointed, then big, and finally charming & sly. The back half of A Man Alive does slip from that, with some nice numbers outside her wheelhouse that wouldn’t work as more than one-offs (the wistful “Millionaire”, the tech-rap “Give Me Peace”), and not as memorable works towards the finish, getting a big dragging at twelve tracks.
At over a decade into music, Thao Nguyen isn’t a kid anymore, and her music reflects that, while also still reflecting herself.