Few artists are storytellers as deft and disarmingly observational as Andy Shauf. The Toronto-based, Saskatchewan-raised musician's songs unfold like short fiction: they're densely layered with colorful characters and a rich emotional depth. On his new album The Neon Skyline (out January 24 via ANTI-), he sets a familiar scene of inviting a friend for beers on the opening title track: "I said, 'Come to the Skyline, I'll be washing my sins away.' He just laughed, said 'I'll be late, you know how I can be.'" The LP's 11 interconnected tracks follow a simple plot: the narrator goes to his neighborhood dive, finds out his ex is back in town, and she eventually shows up. While its overarching narrative is riveting, the real thrill of the album comes from how Shauf finds the humanity and humor in a typical night out and the ashes of a past relationship.
His last full-length 2016's The Party was an impressive collection of ornate and affecting songs that followed different attendees of a house party. Shauf's attention-to-detail in his writing evoked Randy Newman and his unorthodox, flowing lyrical phrasing recalled Joni Mitchell. Though that album was his breakthrough, his undeniable songwriting talent has been long evident. Raised in Bienfait, Saskatchewan, he cut his teeth in the nearby Regina music community. His 2012 LP The Bearer of Bad News documented his already-formed musical ambition and showcased Shauf's burgeoning voice as a narrative songwriter with songs like "Hometown Hero," "Wendell Walker," and "My Dear Helen" feeling like standalone, self-contained worlds. In 2018, his band Foxwarren, formed over 10 years ago with childhood friends, released a self-titled album where Pitchfork recognized how "Shauf has diligently refined his storytelling during the last decade."
The Party earned a spot on the Polaris Music Prize 2016 shortlist and launched Shauf to an appearance on The Late Late Show with James Corden as well as glowing accolades from NPR, The Washington Post, The Guardian, and more. "That LP was a concept record and it really made me want to do a better album. I wanted to have a more cohesive story," says Shauf. Where the concept of The Party revealed itself midway through the writing process, he knew the story he wanted to tell on The Neon Skyline from the start. "I kept coming back to the same situation of one guy going to a bar, which was basically exactly what I was doing at the time. These songs are fictional but it's not too far off from where my life was," Shauf explains.
For The Neon Skyline, Shauf chose to start each composition on guitar instead of his usual piano. He says, "I wanted to be able to sit down and play each song with just a guitar without having to rely on some sort of a clever arrangement to make it whole." The resulting album finds its immediacy in simplicity. While the arrangements on folksy "The Moon" are unfussy and song-centered like the best Gordon Lightfoot offerings, his drive to experiment is still obvious. This is especially so on the unmoored relationship autopsy "Thirteen Hours," which boasts an arrangement that's both jazzy and adventurous.