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Andy Shauf Takes Risks On A Refreshing New Concept Album, 'Neon Skyline'

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of the new album by the Canadian singer-songwriter Andy Shauf called "The Neon Skyline." It's a concept album whose lyrics tell one story for the length of the collection. Shauf wrote, produced and performed everything on the album. Here's Ken's review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NEON SKYLINE")

ANDY SHAUF: (Singing) I called up Charlie about a quarter past 9 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.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: "The Neon Skyline" is an album, but it's also a short story. Over the course of 11 songs, Andy Shauf presents himself as a lonesome first-person narrator who goes to his neighborhood bar thinking about his long gone ex-girlfriend Judy and how they broke up. He runs into a couple of pals. They order drinks, and one friend tells him his ex is back in town. A few moments later, Judy walks into the bar. Complications ensue.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THINGS I DO")

SHAUF: (Singing) Seems like I should've known better than to turn my head like it didn't matter. Why do I do the things I do when I know I am losing you? It was supposed to be a surprise, me showing up. You thought I was working. Why do I do the things I do when I know I am losing you?

TUCKER: Andy Shauf sings and plays everything on the album. And with his chalky voice and intimate instrumentation, the results could've been self-conscious, precious, the very definition of twee. But Shauf has some things going for him. One is that the story he's telling, while slight, is also universal. Admitting to oneself that you screwed up a relationship, well, that's relatable - and so is obsessing about the past and so is the experience of coincidence; that uncanny moment when the person you've been thinking about suddenly appears before you. Shauf captures it well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRY AGAIN")

SHAUF: (Singing) Somewhere between drunkenness and chivalry, I hold the door open and let her pass through. She says thanks to me in a British accent, and I try to answer her in the same voice. She laughs at me, says, what was that supposed to be? I say, I'm sorry. I'm from a different part of the country. She says, come on, baby, try again. Come on, baby, try again.

TUCKER: I'm going to quote a passage I like from that song called "Try Again." It's when Schaaf sings, 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. That's a lovely bit of writing; a brief paragraph that would hold up well if you read it on the page as part of a novel.

In order to keep a listener engaged with the unfolding story he's telling, Shauf has opted to take some risks. For example, the lyrics don't rhyme for the most part. And while he has a real gift for writing catchy choruses - the one on "Try Again" is a doozy - Shauf frequently chooses a loose, more conversational approach. You can hear what I mean on another song called "Dust Kids."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DUST KIDS")

SHAUF: (Singing) Charlie asks me if I believe in reincarnation. I say, no, but please go on. He says, I was reading about these kids. They're, like, 2 years old, recalling their past lives. Could you imagine if that was your kids? Rose asks if we want another. I say, I'll take another life. Do they say what happens in between?

TUCKER: In the end, "The Neon Skyline" is a concept album that makes you realize they don't make them like this very much anymore. Lonely guy singer-songwriters ranging from Paul Simon to Harry Nilsson count among Andy Shauf's predecessors. But for most listeners in 2020, I think he's going to come across as something utterly new.

GROSS: Ken Tucker reviewed Andy Shauf's new album "The Neon Skyline." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be journalist Kim Ghattas, who covered the Middle East for the BBC for 20 years and grew up in Lebanon during the civil war. She's written a new book called "Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran And The Forty-Year Rivalry That Unraveled Culture, Religion And Collective Memory In The Middle East." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE ARE YOU JUDY")

SHAUF: (Singing) Gentle mess, water falling from two eyes. You looked at me, said it would be all right. City lights dazzled you away from me. I think we both knew that's how it would be. But now Charlie's in my left ear blowing my mind again as he's saying... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.