Arts & Crafts/Anti-
It’s 6pm on a cold January Wednesday in Philadelphia, and I have talked a friend into attending the advance listening party for Andy Shauf’s indie rock record The Neon Skyline. Just as the concept album’s protagonist and his friend Charlie, my friend and I talked on the phone and ended up at a nondescript bar–a wise choice of venue on the artist’s part. Shauf has said that he writes about what he knows, and the Skyline is a bar he frequents, even if the details are obscured. The album ties together a patchwork of ambivalent feelings, observations, and reminiscences of a melancholy romantic protagonist.
This is not Shauf’s first concept album, his previous release, The Party (2016), sees Shauf painting impressionistic scenes of a house party–a collection of delightfully familiar descriptors and relationship dynamics. This knack for astute observation is one of the lovely carryovers to the 2020 record, but now Shauf approaches the concept album from a completely different angle. Where The Party was an atmospheric submersion, Neon Skyline is a narrative-driven exploration of the protagonist’s ill-fated relationship. By the time the tense harmonizing clarinets (which Shauf plays himself!) on “Thirteen Hours” bring us the story of the world’s most devastatingly mundane fight, the emotional impact is as real as that of watching a dear friend go through emotional turmoil. We know how deeply in love the protagonist has been, how he cried at their remarkable breakup, and how much he still loves Judy, perhaps without a chance for recovery (on “Where Are You Judy” Shauf repeats “I only miss her when the skies are above”). The protagonist is tongue-tied, bad at impressions and waxing sentimental over a waning moon. He’s not a perfect lover or a Byronic hero, which makes the often fraught, flashy format of the concept album into a refreshing evocation that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
The narrative strength of Neon Skyline can also be seen as its musical weakness. At moments, in following Charlie, Judy, Rose and Claire, the self contained melodic power of Shauf’s earlier songs seems to be a lesser concern in 2020. I was most interested in “Living Room,” a song from the perspective of fellow Skyline regular Claire about her relationship with her father as a child, and her recreation of the same dynamic as a parent. This is new territory for the songwriter, and a really poignant, measured exploration of familial relationships at that. I was also partial towards the unbridled whimsy of “The Moon.” This song is silly! There’s no way around it! Along with the repeated mockery of Charlie for drinking wine (being “such a fancy guy” in a small town). The silliness, sadness, and deep ambivalence characterizing this big night the oddity which makes me want to listen to the album again and again. While I remain somewhat critical of Shauf’s new digs after the coziness and familiarity of The Party, I hope to become a regular of the Skyline “to clear my mind” and join the ranks of the lovelorn poets.