In my broad swath of college activism, one of the most interesting — and divisive — causes I took part in was centered on prisons. Depending on your ability to stomach radical politics, that can mean anything from prison reform to anti-police brutality, to the more revolutionary ideas like prison abolition in favor of ground-up rebuilding. So when I heard Thao Nguyen had been using her off-tour time to volunteer on behalf of the welfare of those incarcerated at Valley State Prison for Women, I was intrigued. It's a subject with lots of potential for conflict and compassion, but can be hard to communicate; great qualities for folk songs. One of the most central and important ideas in the cause is recognizing the humanity in all people, even the incarcerated. It's more of a challenge than you expect — you can see it in the incredulous reaction to the idea that there might be alternatives to prison as we know it. We're brought up with a common sense that dehumanizes and reduces prisoners, and it's that challenge that makes it fertile soil for provocative art.
For this background, Thao & The Get Down Stay Down are aptly named. But their latest, WE THE COMMON, is far from a strict concept album. It's still anchored in Thao's jam-band dives into the slow burn of relationships, but the prison motif can be stretched to accomodate even this. In her songs of self-blame and guilt. she treats her baggage as a cell. The finger point inward, like magnetic north on a compass, and its results are seen in lines scattered all across the album: "If by a third degree / you feel a guilt for me / then I've been a villain all my life" or "I come from regret / have I moved you yet? / don't let me touch you none." Then there's one of the highlight songs, "Move," a loose full bodied basher, where it erupts toward the end like a geyser: "Oh to be free!" she yells, as all her woes are made primal and universal. In a broad sense, you feel that Thao sympathizes with regret over past actions, being villainized, or the weight of binding ties. This is not to say a parallel is drawn. It does not say, in any way, that love is just like prison. But there's a commonality in the language that makes for useful tools of sympathy, not empathy.