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Sublime 2021  •  13 September 2021

Andy Shauf and the Last Stand of the Studio Album

By Joseph Hathaway-Wilson
 Andy Shauf and the Last Stand of the Studio Album

Joseph Hathaway-Wilson of Get Gigged reviews Canadian singer-songwriter Andy Shauf’s sixth studio album, ‘The Neon Skyline’ (2020). Get Gigged is a UTS society dedicated to exploring Sydney’s live music scene and forming a like-minded network of music lovers. From band photographers to music journos to plain old suckers for the mosh-pit, there’s no shortage of personalities willing to catch that upcoming gig with you. Check us out on Facebook at ‘UTS Get Gigged’ and on Insta @getgigged, to get involved.

No one listens to albums anymore. Listening to an album once so you can choose what songs to add to your playlist doesn’t count – that’s just methodical cherry-picking. 

Don’t get defensive, I’m not shaming you. As a matter of fact, I completely understand. We live in the age of audio stream- ing services, with personalised playlists and Spotify mixes to satisfy our musical yearning. It’s hard to find the patience to sit through eleven consecutive tracks from one band, when we can just as easily listen to the exact songs we like, when we like. 

Even before Steve Jobs glazed contemporary society with a varnish of technological banality, the importance of listening to an entire album from front to back was a disputed topic among music fanatics. Armchair critics of the late 20th century (i.e. your dad) will likely question the need to play Side A of a record before Side B, or alternatively tell you that they only used to play one side of a certain record, as the other side was comprised solely of ‘filler trash.’

It could be argued that the only LPs truly exempt from this nonchalance were the avant-garde concept albums pioneered in the late 1960s and kept in fashion throughout the 1970s: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1972), and pretty much everything released by Pink Floyd ever. These concept albums were musical narratives, in which tracks were bound not by the name on the front of the record, but by the recurring characters and themes explored within. One could not skip tracks on a concept album simply because the album would no longer make sense, it was like skipping chapters from a book. The fact that even these works have fallen victim to the select-ive ear of modern audiences signifies the Mixtape’s ultimate victory over the Studio Album, even if the Mixtape has now adopted the form of the Playlist. No one can remember the track that succeeds Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2, not because it was bad, simply because no one cares – they’ve never heard it. 

I know that none of this seems relevant to The Neon Skyline, however, it leads me to a question that definitely is: If no one listens to albums anymore, why should you listen to Andy Shauf?

With all of the above in consideration, one could say that Andy Shauf chose quite possibly the worst point in modern history to release a concept album. You could also say that he was resoundingly successful in doing so. The Neon Skyline is the second of Shauf’s albums to take place over the course of a single evening. His 2016 breakthrough album, The Party, placed listeners in a house full of drunken and emotionally befuddled youths, while Shauf alternated between voicing the anxious first-person narrator, poetically commenting on human nature, and the omnipresent spectator, observing the poignant plights of lonelier guests.

The Neon Skyline shares a similar conceptual basis toThe Party, but without sinking to the same existential lows. The album follows a heartbroken narrator who asks his friend to the local bar. Upon arrival, he learns of his ex’s return to town, sending him down a retrospective path of both warm and reprehensible memories. Midway through the evening, he is met in-person by the very woman he longingly remembers.

While the instrumentation on The Neon Skyline showcases a thorough musical knowledge, it is the permeation of wit and deep thought in Shauf’s lyrics that are the highlight of the album. His habit of telling stories that focus on the minutiae of human interaction remind one of a young Bob Dylan or Paul Simon, however, the narrative voice in The Neon Skyline refrains from crossing the border between first and third person. If Dylan is a lone vagabond, wandering beside a highway in Middle Amer- ica, taking note of the curious encounters he has along the way, then Shauf is his significantly less romantic but somehow more relatable, urban-dwelling counterpart, who drunkenly muses over recollections and the nuances of his desires. From the opening track, the listener is embraced with an air of familiarity, ‘I’m just fine, sometimes I need to clear my mind, you know how that can be.’ The resonance of our narrator’s consciousness persists throughout the work. In the third track, Clove Cigarette, he flits between a dreary present and an affectionately remembered past, while insisting in a painfully relatable fashion that all is well, ‘You take some steps forward and some steps back, it just doesn’t matter ‘cos I’m on track.’ While several tracks are spent inside our narrator’s mind, he never loses sight of the world around him, and keeps the album fresh with a host of regularly dispersed, Dylan-esque obser-vations, ‘Judy laughs a little too hard, I didn’t think it was that funny the first time around.’ 

Shauf’s lyrics aren’t the only feature of The Neon Skyline reminiscent of the 1960s. His gentle fusion of piano, guitar and keyboard, with the judicious use of woodwind, mirrors the instrumental experimentalism practiced by a host of songwriters approaching the Summer of Love. This is complemented by the unorthodox chord progressions and rhythmic changes of tracks such as Where Are You Judy? bringing psychedelic-era bands, such as The Zombies and Love, to mind. Shauf arranges the tracks with the maturity of an experienced producer. Towards the end of the album, he follows the upbeat and heavily layered Try Again with the simple but soul-stirring sound of a single acoustic guitar, strumming us into the penultimate track, Fire Truck. 

Shauf’s sixth studio album isn’t flawless. With its heels dug deep into a linear storyline, listeners may find it difficult to appreciate the tracks outside the context of the album. It is also easy to take aim at the shameless replication of a song-writing style already explored to great success in The Party. However, when compared to other discographies, the album stands its ground.

The Neon Skyline is a multi-faceted album about love, loss, yearning and acceptance. So why should you give it a listen when you can just as easily listen to love songs that don’t involve heartbreak, or breakup songs that don’t get uncomfortably philosophical? Why listen to Andy Shauf when it’s much easier to listen to artists who make you feel pure elation, or pure misery?

When asked to write a music review relevant to the idea of beauty, a number of albums sprung to mind. I thought of the many faces of romance explored in Rubber Soul (1965), and the unbridled joy of Stevie Wonder throughout Songs in the Key of Life (1976). I even dwelt for a while on the gauzy ambience of Slowdive’s Pygmalion (1995) before finally settling on Shauf. 

The decisive step in my selection was thinking not of the music, but of you, the students of UTS, perusing this issue of Vertigo amid impending due dates, procrastinatory nights at the pub, and the ever-present threat of yet another lockdown. The intricacies of modern life may be overbearing, but simultaneous- ly beautiful in the way that someday you’ll miss it – the intensity, the confusion, the life-affirming rays of sun in unexpected places. None of what we live through on a daily basis is as simple as a good love song, a breakup track, or a blistering few minutes of fury, and listening to certain songs in the hope of attaining certain feelings is an often-futile pursuit (okay, that last comment may be subjective. My mother is set in her belief that disco is the antidote to every instance of sorrow). 

Life, especially now, is complicated. Sometimes what we need isn’t a temporary escapism into a fantastic and hypothetical vision of the universe, but a reassuring arm around the shoulder, and a finger to point us in the right direction. And that is what The Neon Skyline provides. You disappear into the narrative and emerge with a feeling of having actually been somewhere and through something. Andy Shauf plays in time with life.

Perfect moments shape memories, and heartbreak shapes you, but the stuff in between – the mundane uncertainty, discomfort and confusion, that leave us questioning before we inevitably wander onwards – now that is sublime.


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