A review of Andy Shauf’s Neon Skyline by Heather Adam.
In September of 2018, I found myself at Vancouver’s Vogue Theatre amongst many other people like me: people who had flown in from Canada’s prairies to see the Saskatchewan-born Andy Shauf sing intricate narratives, bringing them to life with bright, fluttering melodies and tight pocketed rhythms. While the setlist was coming to an end I stood front and center, my eyes and ears eager, my face moist from tears (as a result of “Martha Sways”). After Shauf and the band left the stage, applause continued to bounce off the walls, and soon the singer-songwriter came back alone. For his encore Shauf played a song called “Changer” which would later become the last song of his new record, Neon Skyline. As he strummed on his acoustic and sang he gazed, as if in a trance, at the back wall of the building. He looked as though he was entirely somewhere else, the crowd seemed to be in that other place with him. Shauf’s music has a way of doing that—taking you along with his fictional (or maybe not so fictional characters) on their misadventures, whether those places or situations are comfortable or not.
In an age where mainstream versions of pop and soft rock continue to favor the same simple lyrical structures that have rippled through radio for decades, Shauf is a breath of fresh air. Neon Skyline demands the listener dig their heels into mortality, not-so-great past moments with exes, the inability to really ‘shake feels,’ and that ever present longing “to hold a lighter head” every once and awhile. The artist’s newest release focuses on four characters: the main narrator, his friend Charlie, a bartender named Rose, and the narrator’s ex, Judy. Judy is back in town and, right from the first track of the album, it is entirely clear that her ex boyfriend is having a difficult time reckoning with their intertwined and fragmented past. The lyrics are casual, often more aligned with prose than poetry which, in many ways, explains their potency—it is entirely plausible that two good friends at a bar could have the conversation that weaves its way through this album.
It has been evident since his Bearer of Bad News days that Shauf is as intentional with his lyrics as he is with his instrumentation. Neon Skyline’s arrangements have a way of taking your hand and pulling you in. If you’re skeptical, give “Where are You Judy” a couple of listens and bask in the satisfaction of soft, rising clarinets dropping into a sudden (but flawless) introduction of warm bass, soft acoustic, and staccato percussion. Shauf has a musical brilliance that is founded on subtlety, a type of finesse that somehow creates albums that are both cohesive and untied, songs that sound like nothing else, while somehow feeling as though they were always somewhere in the back of your mind.
Do me a favorL if you’re not sure about “Neon Skyline” after the first listen, spin it four more times. I think you might thank me later.