Andy Shauf is a studio auteur who meticulously constructs intricate, three dimensional characters, then folds them into a lush yet intimate soundscape. Put more simply, this is baroque folk or introvert rock, indebted to the best of the 1970s singer-songwriter tradition.
Shauf certainly gets an “A” for effort on The Party, given that he wrote, performed, arranged, produced, and recorded these songs (with a single exception: strings were performed by Colin Nealis). The Party was deservedly shortlisted for Canada’s prestigious Polaris Prize earlier this year, and if you haven’t seen Shauf’s performance from the gala, well, check it out!
This is a very cohesive song suite, and best listened to from start to finish. The singles are good, but become better in the context of their companions before and after.
There is a great feel or mood to this album. It’s enjoyably claustrophobic, like room that could be stuffy, but is made cozy by the right decorating choices.
Lyrically, many of Shauf’s characters are shy and unsure of themselves, or unable to express their desires without a cigarette, a drink, and some hand-wringing in the corner. Shauf is a bit of a downer (sample lyric: “Everybody’s laughing at me, I wish I’d just stayed home”), but I like that about him: it makes him observant.
Topically at least, his lyrics have parallels to The National’s, though Matt Berninger has a very different poetic voice than does Shauf. But both lyricists are attuned to the interpersonal dynamics that swirl around social situations, and write from somewhere other than the spotlight.
For Shauf, that peripheral setting is a house party. As no less a songwriter than Jeff Tweedy has pointed out, Shauf excels at conjuring complete characters and whole environments in his album concepts. The house party he describes feels real because of the signifiers that he sprinkles throughout: cigarettes, lighters, coffee, beer in red plastic cups.
Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the instrumentation on this album, which is a joy to listen to through headphones or a good pair of speakers. Sleepy acoustic guitar lies alongside sparse piano in a way that recalls Tobias Jesso Jr.’s breakout album from 2015. The drums are dampened, and reverb is deployed sparingly, except on the piano.
But the thing everybody notices is Shauf’s use of woodwinds, especially the clarinet. At first it seems an odd choice, until you realize that it’s easier to blend these instruments into a pop song than it is to integrate more jarring sounds like the saxophone (Shauf has pointed this out in interviews.) It’s a really brilliant move that gives this album a unique sonic imprint. Hats off to Shauf for making this bold choice. The last thing we need is yet another album drenched in generic strings.
I love this album from start to finish, but I think my favourite track has got to be “Begin Again,” with its deep drum groove and persistent, almost bouncy eighth notes that gradually and unhurriedly build to a wordless chorus that is really just a crescendo, yet never feels sparse or unexpressive. It’s these kind of tiny feats that make Shauf stand out in an overcrowded genre. Sometimes a great album is in the details.