Album Review – Thao & The Get Down Stay Down – Temple

[Domino; 2020]

Thao & The Get Down Stay Down aren’t here to rest on any laurels. If 2016’s widely-adored A Man Alive dwelt on absent fatherhood, its followup revels within if not purely motherhood, certainly womanhood. It’s also, in most ways, rather a bold sonic departure from their prior indie smash. While many a brave band has faced the diminished rewards of a left turn, Thao and company seem particularly unperturbed about possibly unsettling their audience with Temple.

If there’s anything that allows you to approach an artistic statement with abondanon, it’s the fact that you almost didn’t make it at all. However rewarding the emotional purge of A Man Alive was for listeners, it left Thao largely exposed and entirely exhausted. She moved in with her girlfriend, with both fantasizing about a small life together, even about opening a restaurant.

Thao’s sexuality isn’t something she’s always wanted as a matter of public record. Beyond understandable weariness at the thought of people unpacking her personal life in reviews, another reality, altogether more personal and cultural, gnawed at her.

During a trip to Vietnam in 2017, accompanied by her mother, Thao was confronted by a myriad of odd situations. She was brought out to tour by nothing less than the U.S. Embassy as a representation of a Vietnamese-American culture in music, certainly a thorny proposition. Moreover, she was just beginning her relationship, and was out neither with her fanbase or her extended family in the country. Enjoying the warm reception of her audiences and family within the country alike, she couldn’t help but sadly ponder if she’d have received the same good tidings should they have known everything about her.

It was this experience that both began to pull her away from music – she was unsure if she could express what needed to be said through a rock record – and ultimately pushed her back in, when she realized, regardless, that she had to try.

That duality looms over every note of Temple, her simultaneous joy at discovering her homeland and fearful fatigue for the lack of acceptance for a queer idenity within that same place.

This album, then, is the most Thao has ever allowed herself to be exposed on record, no longer allowing the media to interpret her words for her, and Temple is brimming with focused clarity. It makes sense, then, that it’s the band’s first self-produced body of work.

Interestingly, by design or happenstance, the music of Temple often feels like a defense encircling Thao’s emotional honesty. While she’s knocking down walls leading to herself, the jagged guitars and steady drumwork erect a sort of shield around the frank display. While A Man Alive often offset the bruised, even tragic tone with some of the band’s catchiest work to date, contrastingly, you could even nearly describe Temple as desert rock.

This is partly thanks to the influence it draws from 60s and 70s Vietnamese rock – certainly a cultural time period of music that has long begged further exploration from listeners worldwide – with Thao allowing the music and voice of her mother’s generation a long overdue global platform.

That said, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down occasionally discover some of their most inspired moments by stripping back their formula on Temple. Penultimate track “I’ve Got Something” offers one of the album’s most transcendent experiences via a distant, muted riff and the sheer power of Thao’s plaintive vocals.

The album’s title is no mistake: a temple, after all, stands as a focal point, a key gathering place in any society, a place into which many put not only their hopes and beliefs, but parts of their very selves. It is a place in which we look for understanding, for belonging. Conversely, these very spaces often lead to judgment, to a prosaic notion of norms. Within her Temple, Thao seems to both feel trapped and at home by turns.

More than any time prior, it feels we’re getting the true human being that is Thao on Temple, offering her every thought, rather than letting another take her words from her. However, for the more casual listener, the musical barbs and purposeful roughly-hewn nature of the music might prove to be a bit of a barrier. With the inherent vulnerability of the words here, however, perhaps that’s just the blanket the band needed. The day when this newfound intimacy fully bounds with The Get Down’s best musical inclinations will be a truly powerful one indeed.