Saskatchewan-born singer-songwriter Andy Shauf is a consummate storyteller. This reputation has followed him around for his entire career, and he seems quite happy to perpetuate it.
Shauf’s earlier work fit firmly into the storytelling idiom of folk and country, writing short character songs each in their own discrete world. But he has since gone beyond the bounds of the song to make rather ambitious concept albums that trace admirably strict storylines.
2020’s The Neon Skyline is a carefully rendered story told in album form. However, in the course of crafting such a precise story sometimes lines important to the plot struggled to fit in the confines of a melody, or expository information clogged up the verses.
Shauf’s new album, Norm, avoids these pitfalls by drastically stripping back the specificity and cranking up the mystery. The lyrics here are much more minimal, and obviously very carefully edited — this is the only album I’ve ever heard of that has a story editor.
The actual plot is a little vague as a result. From what I can gather, we follow the titular character Norm through an increasingly sordid and strange affair with an object of his attraction who he fantasizes about and stalks.
Shauf was inspired by David Lynch’s infamously enigmatic movie Mulholland Drive, mostly, it seems, in trying to escape the rigid structure of a traditional story in favour of more impressionistic and surreal world-building.
Shauf has taken to this new focus quite well. Norm is an expertly crafted piece of soft rock first and foremost. Shauf has always had lovely arrangement impulses and a flair for deceptively simple melodies, but his need for strict lyrical focus constantly had his music playing second fiddle.
In Norm, the melodies and mood take centre stage, filling out the minimal songs with glimpses of eerie, easy listening sleaze and lavish orchestral touches. Shauf keeps his distinct recording style too, capturing all the ASMR-like texture he can muster from his softly strummed acoustic guitars and impossibly light drums.
Songs like “Halloween Store” and “Long Throw” have a dreamy but off-putting way of floating along. There’s this placid stillness and strangeness that compliments the newly mysterious songwriting perfectly.
On its surface, Norm could be taken as just another Andy Shauf album, but diving deeper into the work shows that nearly every element has subtly evolved into an amorphous and strange form.
Shauf’s past stories are so carefully contained and constructed that they feel like ships in a bottle, never escaping their confines. But Norm is a mercurial nightmare — something that lingers in dark corners of your mind long after the record ends.
Norm is available on major streaming services.
Andy Shauf is playing Burton Cummings Theatre in Winnipeg on March 17. Info and tickets can be found here