Music Reviews

Andy Shauf Norm

(Anti- ) Rating - 10/10

Working through ideas for a new album, Andy Shauf had the simplest of intentions: to write a “normal” record. It might seem like an effortless endeavor for anyone else, but for someone like Shauf, who regularly dreams up concepts and characters, that self-restraint became its own challenge. Ultimately, he naturally stumbled upon another concept. Many questions arise from a title as uneventful as Norm. Is Norm short for “normal,” a commentary about the grueling creative process, or is it about a man named Norm? Coming from a songwriter who's previously written with such painstaking directness, for Shauf to engage with a fractured and elusive narrative thread comes as a pleasant surprise.

In the past, the Saskatchewan, Canada multi-instrumentalist has cast a keen eye on everyday life, using locations such as parties and bars to intertwine wandering perspectives on topics like love, deception, and social discomfort. The prose in Norm is limited if purposedly enigmatic, in which he inserts just enough details instead of telling a series of events in a linear sequence. Shauf serves as an unreliable narrator of sorts, conjuring empathy in the darkest of minds. His cleverest trick, however, is writing music of unquestionable beauty, so transfixing that it makes you question if a menacing subtext is actually present.

Spoiling the main narrative of Norm would ruin the entire experience, but it helps to know that Shauf intended to write from the point of view of three narrators—each specified in the accompanying lyric sheet. On the opening track, he invokes an overseeing God struggling not to give up on someone of questionable character: “Was all My love wasted on you?” He approaches a subject as sensitive as the absence of faith with lightheartedness, likely by virtue of adding in little flourishes like clarinet and beaming synths to his amiable folk-pop in all the right places. Shauf progressively clues one in into who Norm is, and through the lens of an all-observant eye, we begin to understand how his characters' unchristlike actions could possibly come from someone who professes faith.

The gentle pacing of Norm propels forward with a steady flutter, revolving around two unnamed characters who assume the roles of victim and, presumably, the offender. Or so one is led to believe. The yearning need for connection in songs like Catch Your Eye and Telephone comes from a place of passion or obsession, where Shauf establishes a sense of stillness with his gliding baroque arrangements while adding just a layer of uneasy ambiance. He achieves a haunting resonance in playing with these open spaces, whether Shauf accentuates a drum fill or a hovering piano progression. When things suddenly pick up on Halloween Store, which moves along with a sing-speak bounce a la Paul Simon, Shauf offers highly descriptive—and chilling, depending on how you look at it—imagery as his words catch up with his rhythm.

Even when he's not aiming for the broadest musical palette, Shauf finds distinct ways to color his melodic sophistication. Assisted by producer Neal Pogue—who mixed the album and whose credits include Outkast and Tyler, the Creator—his masterful songwriting blends loungy jazz ballads (Paradise Cinema) and shadowy orchestral pop with a tinge of old Hollywood sparkle, something akin to a Jon Brion score (Sunset). There are shadings of Aerial Ballet-era Harry Nilsson in the horn and piano-driven Daylight Dreaming. Elsewhere, Long Throw recalls the airy symphonic wonder of Jimmie Spheeris with its melodious guitar strums and gorgeous ethereal crescendo. From the outset, Shauf opted to incorporate modern production touches with clarity and space. And while they're not immediately obvious—this is still a classic song cycle much in his usual vein—the sonic accouterments interspersed feel enhanced rather than dated.

In past releases, Shauf has come close to releasing a body of work that matches the compelling detail of his stories. Usually, the end result is undeniably lush but also dry and a little ponderous. Here, he brings a rich musical gravitas that augments the mystery of his chosen subject. The way Shauf structures the story may feel more like a devious narrative device, even if the pattern of alternating characters is not that much distinct from that of 2020's The Neon Skyline. What's most impressive is there's not a moment wasted in these twelve satisfying tracks, beginning and ending the narrative with a contemplation that also achieves the difficult task of feeling complete.