A few tracks into We the Common, singer/songwriter/bandleader Thao Nguyen bridges from verse to chorus on "The Feeling Kind" with the lyrics "Oh, honey look alive!/It's just human troubles in the modern times." This seemingly benign couplet actually speaks volumes for where Nguyen's head is at on this album and the general focus on the larger human community that defines its songs. The first proper album from Thao & the Get Down Stay Down since 2009's playful but broken Know Better Learn Faster, We the Common was preceded by a series of collaborations between Nguyen and contemporaries like tUnE-yArDs and Mirah. Where Know Better Learn Faster was a relatively self-obsessed look at relationships and conflicted feelings, the collaborations that followed it and now We the Common grew more universally minded, putting aside panicked personal sagas to search for solutions to human troubles. Tracks like "City" and the glammy doo wop update "Human Heart" zoom out wide, looking at helping suffering friends, taking pride in the place you live, and getting plugged into the communities we're all part of and often ignore. "I got to get devoted!" Nguyen sings, and the urgency is audible. Even when singing about love, sex, and personal matters, there's a more confident and assured manner to the songs. Tracks like "Every Body" glow with confidence and retain the lighthearted feel of older songs without any of the insecurity that sometimes accompanied them.
T&TGDSD's musical output has always been colorful and astute, and the brilliantly crisp production here brightens the group's already varied musical palette. The slinky guitar and up-front horns of "We Don't Call" feel natural blending into the front-porch banjo stomp of "Kindness Be Conceived," a spare duet that pairs Thao's smoky vocals with special guest Joanna Newsom's creaky croon. "Clouds for Brains" finds eerie strings, atmospheric textures, and looming percussion perfectly backing Nguyen's vocals at their most Cat Power-borrowing. The songs are as masterfully delivered as ever, but a distinct growth comes through in every move. Without making an album that acquiesces to the clichés of getting older and letting go of the soft-hearted concerns of youth, Nguyen has written this set of songs from a place of open-hearted contemplation for the conflicting directions the world at large is always spinning in, and her role in making it better for everyone. In the process she's turned in her most mature work and coincidentally some of her most enjoyable.