Andy Shauf — ‘The Neon Skyline,’ 4/5

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There is a formula to what Andy Shauf does. His music is detailed and incisive, lighter than air, filled with a sprightly mix of guitar, piano and his signature reedy horns and woodwinds played as though they’re fluttering around your head.

That this formula is still so effective is a testament to his ability as a songwriter and arranger, and how he’s honed his sound carefully rather than blown it out to widescreen proportions. His newest record, the relationship-dissecting song-cycle The Neon Skyline, is his most precise yet, finding new contours in his writing and unearthing new depths of colour.

Shauf remains dedicated to his conceptual frameworks. Like 2016’s The Party, The Neon Skyline is centred on a particular idea and a particular place — this time around it’s the record’s namesake, Shauf’s Toronto haunt filled with familiar faces. The face most important to the record — the face illuminated by these softly glowing songs — is his ex, Judy, who is unexpectedly back in town.

The album plays like an expertly choreographed stage performance, each song a spotlight on a new character — old pal Charlie, bartender Rose, young mother Claire, golden-haired Judy.

Often the spotlight is on Shauf as he delves into soliloquy, recalling past lives and inhabiting the minds of friends and family. You can feel the edifices of the skyline being built around you, the sidewalk outside and streetlights appearing from thin air.

The album is pared back slightly from the lush arrangements found on The Party — these songs sound like Shauf boiled down to his essence, a summation of his talent for brisk, meticulous pop songs. His sound is a more modest, economical form of the 1970s contemporary singer-songwriter fare, with traditional instrumentation — piano, guitar, horns, live drums — made new again, rendered tighter and more melodic.

That his words tell such vivid, lived-in stories is the record’s ultimate gift, his words the glowing heart of these songs. And though no resolutions are reached, though he and Judy remain feet apart, sharing small talk, you’ll be glad you were brought along for the ride.