Andy Shauf Tells A Fascinating Story on NormMusic Reviews Andy Shauf
Andy Shauf’s albums sort of feel like watching a murder mystery—at the same time as you’re appreciating the gentle Canadian singer/songwriter’s craft, you’re also trying to work out just where he’s coming from, and what emotional circumstances you’re in. He famously has a knack for concept LPs, the most well-known being The Party (2016). If you’ve come in contact with Shauf’s work before, you can imagine that these universes he creates in the space of 10 to 12 songs are not as simple as the one-to-two word album titles might suggest. A party is not just a party; his latest album, Norm, whose name arose from his idea that this time around, he’d finally make a “normal” album, is not just about some guy named Norm.
It makes sense that Shauf released the first three singles in the order they appear on the album, beginning with opener “Wasted On You.” The album’s story unravels itself as Shauf speaks to you: first, he gently sets the stage using songs with a slightly odd lilt to them that could be written off as over-enthusiastic love. Then, he sets a leafy, moonlit scene that shines down on…a stalker named ‘Norm.’ The obsession with a love interest becomes clearer and clearer, with aisles (of grocery and Halloween stores, though one can’t help but think of wedding aisles) serving as the most constant setting for the action; the heart hurts for Norm’s loneliness even as one finds oneself increasingly terrified of him. Most interesting is when God narrates these scenes, with Shauf writing him as an individual as flawed and selfish as any other. This review almost feels like it should come with a “SPOILERS” tag.
Shauf’s lyrics are deceptively simple—take “Halloween Store,” for instance, in which he tells a chain of events, repeating the words “house” and “lock” about a million times in the first half, keeping the atmosphere laid back and casual. Most of these songs set up moments—with the exception of a few, they don’t do much to reflect on what has happened. That is left up to the listener. The biggest question we are left to struggle with, of course, is where does love come from? The love of others is cast in a lonely, scary light, with trust being hard to build; the love coming from religion is falsified as God is revealed to go to manipulative lengths while craving love. There is a core, deep loneliness to the project, found in the sparseness and falsely casual tones of the production.
The music itself—the composition, the melody, the instrumentation—is promising at first, but falls flat as the album progresses. “Wasted On You” is a new direction for Shauf, with new R&B inflections, and woodwinds working with the piano in a pleasing lilt. There’s a gentle waterfall in the way the song covers your shoulders, aptly lulling you into the false sense of security necessary to begin your journey with this LP. But as the album progresses, the melody serves more as a backdrop for the tale Shauf is telling. Like any fantastic, fascinating story, the swells and dips are emphasized. The artist’s singing is delicate and emotive, treating the characters with empathy and sensitivity, embodying him as he takes on their “voices.”
But in the end, he does feel like a storyteller more than anything else. This is a yarn that he spins intricately and suspensefully, and he has you hanging on to how it twists and turns. The music plays its part very well in helping elevate and cushion different moments. The woodwind backing, in particular, feels like a narrative chorus—sinister on “Paradise Cinema,” leading the listener down the story’s path on “You Didn’t See,” keeping things light on “Wasted On You” and directly contrasting that on album closer “All Of My Love.” There are moments of surprise, too, with the beginning of “Halloween Store” sounding unexpectedly like a pop song you might find sped up to dreamy scenery on Tik Tok. Shauf works in delicate subtleties here, inserting a sinister synth or clarinet there, or turning a melody from one track on its head about five songs later. But in some parts, the songs melodically jumble together, feeling like a story sung so that it sticks in your mind better. Listened to as a group, there is a cohesive, gasping wholeness to the album, one where songs flow into each other easily. But when not listened to as a collective, songs struggle to make their mark as lone pieces. This can be the danger of a concept album—to make it all work seamlessly, some individuality can get lost. “Halloween Store,” “Wasted On You” and “Norm” are among the songs that you don’t forget—the rest work like a gentle yet pointed machine, moving our meditation forward.
But what meditation that is! The haunting story could live in your mind for days, with little details rising to the surface every now and then as you wonder at their meaning. Love is treated by the narrator (self-awarely, on Shauf’s part) as something concrete, that can be handled and solved like a math equation. Beyond the obvious conclusion that it is no such thing, the question remains: where does all this “love” in the story go from here? Can it really vanish, just like that? Why do we too often turn towards art to look for sure answers about love, when we know damn well that it’s a puzzle everyone has to put together on their own? At the same time as Shauf puts together this dramatic story with love at the lyrical core, he seems to maintain that there’s no single answer that will work for everyone.
Of course, since it’s Andy Shauf, this is no black-and-white tale about a stalker who did something wrong. There’s a delicate pain to how the artist sings, especially on heartbreaker “Don’t Let It Get To You,” which feels like slowly, sadly dissolving in afternoon sunlight. There’s an invitation to consider the loneliness inside yourself, and what it propels you to do (or not do) in your own life. The artist’s stories work as not-quite-parables, with no message tumbling through and pushing everything along, but certainly asking the listener to spend time with whatever part of themselves they see in the twists and turns. And even when it’s hard, Shauf’s music makes self-reflection a temptation too inviting to resist.
osa Sofia Kaminski is a writer, climber of trees and collector of odd treasures that she quickly loses, and is based in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She can be reached at @rosa.sofia.k on Instagram.
Watch Andy Shauf perform live at the Paste Studio in New York on Jan. 13, 2020.