Music Reviews
The Neon Skyline

Andy Shauf The Neon Skyline

(Anti-/Arts & Crafts) Rating - 8/10

Bars are sanctuaries filled with all kinds of confessions. In Andy Shauf's case, his place of refuge—at least figuratively speaking—is The Skyline diner in Toronto—the setting for his sixth release. Throughout the years, the Saskatchewan singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist has sharpened his ability to write albums that feel like reading prose. Based around a night filled with memory and regret, Shauf uses the most endearing of cliches to convey a slice-of-life narrative that instantly feels relatable. He muddles the distinctions between fact and fiction, using first-person observations centered around a past love, named Judy, who's back in town—and the conflicting emotions that continue to haunt him.

Despite falling into "concept album" territory, The Neon Skyline is simple and compact in design, as its eleven tracks breeze by over warm, stripped-down folk arrangements overlaid with musical accouterments like saxophone and clarinet. The plot almost unfolds in real-time, where Shauf occasionally interrupts the flow of time with vivid asides that give insight into what presumably went wrong. He's descriptive but never exhaustive—from describing the moment he sits down at the bar (Neon Skyline) to remembering a familiar scent from a bystander's cigarette (Clover Cigarette), Shauf uses minute details to set the scene.

With each pint that he drinks with his friend Charlie, Shauf gets increasingly concerned about the prospect of reuniting with Judy. On Where Are You Judy, his idealized naiveté gets the best of him—remembering her gentle whisper as he plays a calm acoustic strum. But as the album progresses, Shauf's memories begin to surface. Whether narrating one of the relationship's low points (Thirteen Hours) or recalling their expected downfall (Things I Do), Shauf takes stock of the situation at hand in hopes of finding some clarity. But for the sake of levity, he uses humorous tangents to add authenticity to his surroundings—on the jazzy, Nick Drake-lite Living Room, he shares a vignette about an acquaintance called Claire who begins to share a very personal anecdote he didn't expect.

There's a better appreciation for Shauf's storytelling if you're willing to accept that it's coming specifically from his point of view—as reliable or unreliable as it may be. We finally get to hear from Judy, too, upping the tension before the album's bittersweet denouement arrives on Fire Truck. What happens is, well, better not left to spoil, but Shauf retains his usual sensitivity while accepting the natural course of things. Fire Truck is a perfect example of how he uses a melancholy tone to accompany his rattling quiver, striving for a delivery that is as soft-spoken as it is self-assured.

Though The Neon Skyline doesn't feature a standout single like The Magician—which, really, is a tall order—Shauf opts for a dim-lit, consistent soft-rock groove that better fits his characters' sustained and reflective mood. What it does, in return, is expand his microcosm of stories into a universe of its own—more ambitiously exemplified in 2016's The Party. Even at his most open, there's still this sense that his character-driven songs wouldn't exist without revealing the backstory of his Canadian roots. His sentiments are more palpable and poignant, but his approach is as casual as always.