Published Jan 24, 2020Andy Shauf found his strength in the cozy confines of The Party, his Polaris Music Prize-shortlisted 2016 breakthrough, but even after his subsequent skyrocket to acclaim, his world hasn't gotten much bigger — and yet, he's all the better for it.
The Neon Skyline isn't so much a big leap as a quiet shuffle down the street. The Party featured a series of loosely connected stories about the happenings of a single house party, while The Neon Skyline tells the story of a single night at a bar, framing Shauf's nameless protagonist. But Shauf's vision has, in its own subtle way, gotten grander and more heartbreaking.
The action of The Neon Skyline is framed by a narrative that finds our protagonist on a collision course with destiny, once he finds out that his ex-girlfriend is back in town. But the narrative is just one piece of the puzzle, as the album swirls in and out of the lives of its cluster of characters (like wisecracking best bud Charlie, young mother Claire and bartender Rose) to offer earnest meditations on love, loss and the breakdowns in communication that turn the sweetest of relationships into fraught messes. The Saskatchewan-bred songsmith's heartrending, slice-of-life vignettes are bolstered by his studio wizardry and rich, clarinet-favouring orchestral folk arrangements, merging Randy Newman's penchant for character, Bruce Springsteen's fascination for the downtrodden, Paul Simon's sprightly folk and Steely Dan's studio mastery into a breezy, no-frills package.
The arrangements are dialled down from The Party's orchestral swell — while Shauf's trusty clarinet is all over the record, the restrained palette gives more space for his lyrics, which possess his true, devastating power. Each song features more than enough clever, relatable quips, but the way they pile together in the context of the narrative increases their impact tenfold, like in second single "Try Again": "She says 'I've missed this' / I say, 'I know, I've missed you, too' / She says 'I was actually talking about your coat.'" It's an embarrassing miscommunication on its own, but practically heart-stopping once you actually get to know the characters and their history, and just one of many similar moments throughout the record.
The Neon Skyline is a crystallization of everything Shauf has been working meticulously to perfect throughout his rise to international acclaim — his characterization, world-building and ear for arrangements. Shauf's ability to imbue his characters with plenty of nuance, quirk, charm and flaw in brisk scenes is impressive enough, but his need to craft full worlds around them put him head and shoulders above his peers. (Arts & Crafts)