“The album is named Know Better Learn Faster because you can’t. By the time you realize you should, it’s too late,” explains Thao Nguyen on her third full-length album. Best known for lively, exuberant juxtapositions of playful melodies, witty lyricism, and energetic stage presence, Know Better Learn Faster continues that thread while also bringing a new sense of seriousness and melancholia. This is not to say that Know Better Learn Faster is a downer of an album, rather it’s still boisterous, still playful, still witty – it’s all that with lyrics of profound heartbreak.
There’s a party on the cover. People are cheering, a disco ball spins and confetti is flying. In the midst of it all, Nguyen stands, peeking underneath her blindfold, surveying the damage she’s done to the heart-shaped piÃ±ata. This image is a pretty good indicator of what Know Better Learn Faster is about – it’s a raucous album, for sure, but the album is really more about the damage, the after-party, the morning after. There’s a lot of regret and hard-earned retrospection floating around here and Nguyen captures all of that with wildly evocative lyrics that are smart, full of anger, sadness and loss. As I listened to Know Better Learn Faster on repeat, it felt as if Nguyen pulled these feelings, these thoughts right out of my brain and relayed them to song.
“Everybody please put your clothes back on,” Nguyen sings on “Trouble Was For.” Her deadpan delivery imbues the line with great humor, but there’s also a devastating finality to it. Relationship is over, mister – don’t let the door hit you on the way out. Nguyen’s sharp-witted lyrics lob some heavy blows, never more so than on “Body,” a delicious funk-inspired song that is full of venom and knowing sensuality. As Nguyen sings, “what am I just a body in your bed,” there’s so much anger and hurt to it both at her former lover and at her own complicity, it’s almost difficult to listen to. Yet the energetic Get Down Stay Down keep it from getting mired into “You Oughta Know” territory. Yes, it’s volatile, but it’s also an infectious and upbeat anthem.
On the flip side, “The Give” is a gorgeous song, held by acoustic guitars and banjos. It’s profoundly melancholic, as Nguyen plays the role of an older gentleman, full of restrained longing. As I listened to “The Give,” I became overwhelmed with sadness. Perhaps it’s through my assumption that Nguyen’s characterization is that of an Asian man and my own upbringing in a very discreet and restrained Korean household that I found myself moved close to tears. As she sang, “who will run my family business” and “my oldest is getting married / my youngest can barely bare me,” I felt heartache for the emotions that are so often locked away and will likely never surface. I can’t say for sure that Nguyen aimed to capture the near-closeted manner in which a lot of Asian households function, but I can say that it rang incredibly true for me.
I can go on and on about each track and how they affected me. I can talk about how they sparked some emotion in me – whether it was a memory of a break-up, a current sense of suspension and even loneliness, or a feeling of pride as I see another Asian female making strong, stereotype-defying music. While Know Better Learn Faster is indeed an album of “sad sex” (as Nguyen said herself) and burnt bridges, it is also filled with catchy, upbeat, radio-ready songs. Each song is heartfelt and true, imbued with vivid imagery and deft storytelling. The accompaniment of the Get Down Stay Down provide rich musical texture, taking the rather personal chronicles and making them sound effervescent and communal. Know Better Learn Faster is a break-up album for sure, but it’s not one of ‘woe as me’ pity parties, rather there’s comfort in the band, in the community Nguyen surrounds herself in. While bridges have been burned, hearts broken, emotionally messy sex was had, there’s also a sense of optimism to Know Better Learn Faster. Nguyen couldn’t have said it better on closing track “Easy”: “sad people dance too.”