Thao & the Get Down Stay Down’s 2016 album A Man Alive was a stunner. Thao Nguyen had been releasing complex records for most of a decade, but that set perfectly captured her potent vocals, unusual beats and general brashness. And then Nguyen nearly walked away from music, taking time off while she considered moving on. Instead, her thoughts turned into Temple. The new album recovers her creativity and embrace of the personal, but it tones down the energy, simplifying some of the music into more direct presentations. The move often works, but to some degree, it also saps the act of what had made it so powerful.

“Phenom” echoes previous work, a reminder of Thao & the Get Down Stay Down’s controlled volatility. The bouncy bass line suggests pop possibilities before the weirdness sets in. Nguyen delivers an increasingly angry attack, turning former compliance into a rebellion. “I have nurtured/ You corrupted/ I am erupting/ Don’t interrupt it,” she snarls. By describing herself as an “old phenomenon,” she suggests that a latent force is now coming out, strengthened by its previous pressurization. Nguyen’s at full power here and landing at a place somewhere between a threat and an anthem gives the song a particular resonance.

Other tracks on Temple are no less emotional even if they tend to be less immediate. On “Pure Cinema” Nguyen considers the way she’s kept her distance and watched her life as if it were on a screen. Instead, she now tells herself, it’s time to “live a little” as a way to belong, to escape being “scattered” and “scarce.” The song’s bridge uses wordplay to bring feelings of fear and isolation together, the alliteration and slant rhymes shaping the music into a hypnotic form. If the artists have toned down their sound, they’ve found a way to do it right on this cut.

Not every cut survives the paring, though. Temple doesn’t have any true missteps, but it glides on occasion. The easygoing “Marauders” has its moments in its openness, but lacks the friction that would make it stick. The farther the group gets from its diverse influences and its hip-hop sense of percussion (Merrill Garbus’s return would be welcome), the more indistinct it becomes. Nguyen’s lyrics hold up and remain surprising enough to carry the album, but they go better supported by idiosyncratic backing rather than more typical indie rock–even if it’s well done.

In that sense, Thao & the Get Down Stay Down suffer from competing against its own past. It may be an unfair complaint, as few acts should bother to do a redux. Temple has its hooks and its intelligence, but it doesn’t feel unleashed enough. For a more contemplative mood, parts of the record will do the trick, suggesting that the group might be on to something with its new sound. Nguyen’s restlessness and curiosity has always served the band well, and a little exploration isn’t a bad thing. Temple doesn’t reach the highs of previous works, but seeing the act refine its sound provides its own sort of intrigue.

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