The Party feels as visceral and lifelike as any record this year.
Singer-songwriters are often inherently introspective individuals, which is why their records, while usually illuminating, can also sometimes be inaccessible. Diversity, both sonically and perspective-wise, is sometimes hard to come by for artists whose music comes through a highly insular process. On his third LP, Canadian Andy Shauf brilliantly sidesteps both of these issues, using a party as his central theme and giving the record both a cast of characters to follow and the opportunity to experiment with unique instrumentation beyond your typical pianos and acoustic guitars. Appropriately titled The Party, the album is smart, endearing and soulful, an impressive and intricate tapestry that proves Shauf is one of the most gifted musicians working today.
Shauf is by no means a belter, but what his singing voice lacks in heft it makes up for in emotional inflection, which is essential for conveying the wide array of emotions that come in and out of focus during the titular party, where he serves both as narrator and guest. He isn’t a humorist storyteller in the vein of Father John Misty, but Shauf is just as good at creating a sense of place and time, both lyrically and musically. Opener “The Magician” uses a cryptic parable of a magician on stage to explore the feeling of uncertainty. It also features a delightful pair of competing melodies played on the clarinet and strings. It’s a unique bit of instrumentation that could seem gimmicky on its own, but throughout The Party, Shauf expertly employs reeds, horns, and strings to flesh out his soundscapes.
“Early to the Party” begins the affair in earnest, with Shauf painting a portrait of the awkward dance between an early arriving guest and the host that is at once funny, sad and eminently relatable. “Early to the party/ You’re the first one there/ Overdressed and underprepared/ Standing in the kitchen/ Stressing out the host/ Pulling teeth ‘til anyone arrives,” Shauf waxes over a dusky instrumental that slowly blossoms into something bigger and bolder, like the relationship tensions that make the experience so taut in the first place.
“Begin Again” is a stirring ode to self-absorption and over-sharing, punctuated by an onomatopoetic, world ending flash of light created by reverberating cymbals and horns. Shauf’s typically innocent, earnest vocals drip sarcasm as he tells off a narcissistic companion at the party. “You’re the leading man/In a film where the end of the world/Is decided by you/Whenever you choose,” Shauf says. On “Quite Like You,” Shauf puts names to his characters, walking the listener through his decision to test the waters with Sherry, who’s been neglected by her stoned boyfriend, Jeremy. The encounter is a heartwarming meet-cute, but in the end Shauf finds Sherry draped all over Jeremy, and he’s left on his own. Throughout The Party, Shauf is more than willing to play the role of the fool.
Most of the album is a fairly light, low stakes event, but “Alexander All Alone” injects some heaviness in both sound and subject. It’s the most electric guitar-heavy song on the LP and deals with the sudden death of its title character. The song is a bit of a jarring tone shift from the rest of The Party, and while Shauf does his best to make it work, it’s perhaps the only moment that should have been left on the cutting room floor. Closer “Martha Sways” is somber and contemplative, with Shauf finally finding a true companion at the party but having trouble getting his ex out of his head. “Martha sways/ And I follow suit/ She fills my glass/ And I toss it back/ Into the space that once held you,” Shauf confesses in one of the most arresting moments of an album filled with them.
When it finally draws to a close, The Party feels as visceral and lifelike as any record this year. It’s a testament to Shauf’s craftsmanship and attention to detail, and it’s hard to imagine another singer-songwriter releasing a project this human and cohesive in the near future.