Reviewing Andy Shauf's "The Neon Skyline"

A picture of Andy Shauf's Neon Skyline album coverWritten By: Johann Cardenas, 3rd year Bioinformatics

Photo credits: Neon Skyline album cover from Spotify

One of my favourite albums from 2020 is Andy Shauf’s The Neon Skyline. The album’s instrumentation is notably stripped-down compared to his earlier works, yet remains varied and textured: from softly strummed acoustic guitars on Fire Truck, to prominent woodwinds and piano on the opening of Where Are You Judy. Shauf’sgentle delivery and catchy, melodic hooks are distinctive and refreshing and add to the replayability of his songs. Just sonically, the album is a pleasing collection of indie-pop tunes. The real strength of the album, however, are the lyrics, with each line contributing to a larger narrative that encompasses the entire album.

Andy Shauf’s discography has always been characterized by his lyrics. Hometown Hero, the first track of his that I ever listened to, told the story of a high school football coach stopping a gas station robbery. It was a brief yet instantly compelling glimpse into small-town life. His 2016 album, The Party, was like a collection of vignettes, each song telling the perspectives of different attendees at a single party. With a few lines, he can give a snapshot of a life; his detailed, conversational lyrics instantly immerse you in the narrative of the song, and transport you to the perspective of the characters. It would be an understatement to call him a storyteller. It’s more like he’s found a way to capture real-life events and transform them into 2-4 minute songs.

The Neon Skyline is no exception in its lyricism. Rather than a collection of self-contained tracks, the entire album works together to tell one narrative: one man’s night out at the titular Neon Skyline bar, where he finds out his ex-girlfriend, who he isn’t exactly over, is in town. In short, it’s a breakup album; the story is nothing revolutionary. What really hooks you though is the way the story is told. The opening track, Neon Skyline, begins the narrative with the narrator making plans with his friend to meet at the bar. The instrumentation is funky and upbeat, reflecting the good mood of the main characters, but Andy Shauf’s lyrics and vocal delivery hint at the sadness lurking just below the surface.

The following track Where Are You Judy has the narrator learn that his ex-girlfriend, Judy, is back in town. It’s a total tonal shift, with an opening arrangement of woodwind instruments that bring back a feeling of nostalgia and melancholy. He then follows with my favourite verse in the album, succinctly describing the ending of their relationship in just four lines:

Gentle mess, water falling from two eyes

You looked at mesaying I would be alright

City lights dazzled you away from me

I think we both knew that’s how that would be

After the opening tracks, the narrator recounts his entire relationship, from the good (Clove Cigarette), to the bad (Thirteen Hours), and the regretful end (The Things I Do). The next tracks bring us back to the real world, with bar conversations giving insights into the secondary characters' lives and relationships (Living Room and DustKids). I appreciate these tracks for their conversational lyrics that immerse the listener in the setting, although I honestly found these to be the weaker part of the album, as I found the main narrative of the breakup more interesting. The Moon, however, finally connects the narrator’s past and present as Judy suddenly walks into the Neon Skyline bar. I appreciated how the stripped-down instrumentation and slower tempo reflect both the delicateness of the situation and how for the narrator, time seemed to slow as soon as she walked in the room.

Try Again is one of the catchier tracks on the album, and follows the narrator’s attempts at reviving the connection between himself and Judy. The lyrics showcase banter between the two which seemed like it must have been lifted out of an actual relationship and made me genuinely laugh. Fire Truck is a tonal shift away from the up-tempo previous track. Here the night is ending, and the narrator imagines standing in the ashes of his failed relationship. The most striking part of this track is the wordless chorus imitating the sirens of a fire truck. Not only is it catchy, but its ambiguity leaves some room for hope amidst the despair of the narrator.

Finally, the last track, Changer, has the narrator reminiscing about the past again. The soft yet complex instrumentals, combined with the falsetto vocal chorus, make the track seem almost dream-like. The lyrics are fittingly ambiguous; throughout the album, the narrator seemed resistant to change, preferring to be stuck in the past and stay in his small town. In this track, he is either finally accepting the “Changer” and the change it creates, or he is resigning himself for the Changer to change on without him. Either way, the track is a beautiful and fitting end for the album.

Overall, The Neon Skyline is some of Andy Shauf’s best work. The lyrics are expertly crafted, while the narrative seems so specific and real yet also almost universally relatable. The vocals, instrumentals, and catchy melodies support the lyrics perfectly, making the album not only a compelling story but a pleasing listen as well. The only downsides of this record are that I wish some more tracks were more focused on the main narrative and that the vocal style of Andy Shauf, while unique, can also make the lyrics hard to understand on the first listen. Overall though, I highly recommend this album.

Rating: 9/10

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