Shauf further cements himself as one of our more intriguing and effortless songwriters.
Without considering Andy Shauf’s lyricism, his fantastic new record, The Neon Skyline is a gentle, almost poppy soft-rock ride. Every drum hit feels purposefully diminished, the small flourishes of clarinet you could almost miss if you weren’t paying close enough attention. It’s aurally pleasing in a way that helps to draw the listener into a well-worn world full of people who know each other as well as any frequent drinking companions can, exchanging knowing laughs and charming dialogue.
But more so than the music, it’s in that dialogue, and in the lives of those people, where Shauf really shines. As in most of his work, The Neon Skyline is all about the people who inhabit the world of the album. Many of the songs here feel like sections of a book that Shauf has decided to put to music. All you need to do is read the first stanza to acclimate yourself: “I called up Charlie about a quarter past nine and said, ‘What’s going on tonight?’/ He said, ‘No plans, but I wouldn’t mind holding a lighter head tonight’/ I said, ‘Come to the Skyline, I’ll be washing my sins away’/ Oh, he just laughed, said, ‘I’ll be late, you know how I can be.’” You’ve never met Charlie, but somehow, you already know how he can be. Every song is like that fragment, full of conversational dialogue that impressively mimics the way people talk to each other when nobody’s waiting for them to be wise or poetic.
Like Shauf’s 2016 album, The Party, The Neon Skyline exists to tell the story of a single night with a simple story: our protagonist goes down to the bar to drink with his friends, only to learn that Judy, his former flame, is back in town. Through a series of flashbacks, we witness the demise of their relationship. In “Thirteen Hours,” they fight over whether his poor tipping of a cabbie is responsible for an accident involving a drunk driver: “‘If you weren’t such a cheap bastard, I’d be at home’/ ‘I’m not made of money, you should’ve left it alone’/ As soon as I say it, she looks at me so surprised.” In “Things I Do,” he comes home to find her cheating on him, which results not in her anger or defensiveness, but her embarrassment. The premise of “Things I Do” is remarkably clichéd, but the way he paints the events shifts the focus away from the adultery and onto the narrator’s blind ignorance to the rapidly growing rift that caused it.
What separates the record from others like it is that our narrator and Judy aren’t the only characters we follow. Not everyone ends up as fleshed-out as the estranged couple, but the portrait painted of the people that surround them is clear enough that you only need so much—you don’t need to know about the dynamic between Charlie and Rose the bartender to sense why she gently laughs at him for ordering a glass of Merlot, and why Judy does too in “Try Again.” In “Living Room,” their friend Claire grapples with the cycle of crappy parenting that led to her breaking her own promise to herself to do better than her own father and just “give a shit, give a shit, give a shit” when her child brings her a drawing he made. Most other albums wouldn’t give us an entire song in which a side character recounts her father’s indifference to creativity and self-flagellates for exhibiting the same behavior, but the result is that you want to know these people.
Through Shauf, we already feel like we know Judy. By the time she actually shows up in “The Moon” and starts teasing him for doing a terrible impression of her accent in “Try Again,” you start to root for reconciliation. “Try Again” beautifully captures the way even failed partners can fall into the same river of chemistry they once drifted down: “Somewhere between drunkenness and charity/ She puts her hand on the sleeve of my coat/ She says, ‘I’ve missed this,’ I say, ‘I know, I’ve missed you, too’/ She says, ‘I was actually talking about your coat’.” “Try Again” may be one of Shauf’s most successful experiments in storytelling, the interactions within it inviting enough that you yearn to find the bar these people inhabit.
The Neon Skyline’s evening of drunken half-reconciliation ends without true resolution: Judy slips off into the night, leaving the narrator to take shots with Charlie and Claire at last call. The album is just over half an hour long, but it’s inviting enough that you’d likely accept another full hour of it without getting bored; It’s almost better-viewed as an enchanting and heartbreaking novella you wish would run a full 300 pages. With it, Shauf further cements himself as one of our more intriguing and effortless songwriters, unafraid to ditch typical conventions in favor of some of the most remarkably vivid imagery in recent memory.