Every once in a while a record comes along that’s so good, you can’t help but throw up your hands in defeat while attempting to describe its merits to someone else. In that vein, consider me at a loss: Andy Shauf’s “The Party” (out via Anti- Records) is the Regina, Saskatchewan, singer/songwriter’s third studio album, and simply put, it's a masterpiece in every way.
Throughout the course of the record’s 10 tracks, Shauf imagines different characters at a particularly lively party: There’s the woman who shows up way too early (“Early to the Party”); the guy who drunkenly confesses his (platonic?) love to his buddy (“To You”); an unfortunate soul who decides to quit smoking and then dies outside puffing on his last cigarette (“Alexander All Alone”); and another lad who unsuccessfully tries to pick up his best friend’s girl (“Quite Like You”). Though perfectly woven together, the record wasn't exactly assembled that way.
“I didn't really start out with the idea of linking the songs together,” Shauf explained in our email exchange. “But as I was writing, there was a common theme that kept coming up and I realized halfway through writing that I could stitch them all together in the context of a party.”
The idea of conceptualizing a full story within a rock/pop album is certainly not new -- some of the greatest bands in the history of popular music have tried their respective hands. The results are generally a mixed bag but where others have come up short (ever listened to Neil Young’s “Trans”?), “The Party” excels. Perhaps it’s because Shauf didn’t try forcing the tracks together.
“I spend a lot of time working out ideas and seeing them through and then sorting out whether I like them or not. I do a lot of rewriting and reworking of songs and lyrics before I get to the point where I feel good about it. I think that having a story arc can be limiting if it's too specific. I think it's a little easier to see a story come out of songs than to try and force songs into a story arc.”
As the characters in “The Party” come and go over the course of its all-too-brief 38 minutes, it’s hard not to read between the lines and imagine there’s more to the album’s various fictional accounts than meets the ear.
“There's always a bit of real life in the songs,” Shauf admitted. “Most of the songs come from things that have happened to me or things that have happened to people I know. There's always some attachment to the songs I guess ... some more than others for sure.”
Lyrics aside, part of the album’s charm resides in the fact that it’s a vast yet quiet affair. Expansive as much as it is restrictive, most songs employ a meager mix of softly strummed acoustic guitar, delicate piano, dampened drums and a dry, wooden bass tone. But those pieces are just building blocks for more ornate add-ons like violins, cellos, clarinet and Wurlitzer. Surprisingly enough, the multi-instrumentalist Shauf recorded the entirety of the record solo (aside from the strings) in the studio.
“I really enjoy working out ideas and recording on my own ... It takes me awhile to sort out the ideas in my head, and I find it's a lot easier to do that alone than make people wait around for it to happen.”
The tales themselves are beautifully written and told in the singer/songwriter’s soft, demure voice, which never rises above a pursed-lipped sigh. Recalling at times the hushed vocals of the late Elliott Smith or an introspective Sufjan Stevens, the songs benefit from the lush arrangements and low volume (“I like trying to play quiet,” he says). Shauf’s journey to “The Party” was apparently a lengthy one. In previous interviews, he’s revealed that he recorded several different versions of the songs during the album process. When asked if those alternate takes would someday surface, he was doubtful.
“I don't think you'll ever hear them,” he said. “I go through a lot of bad ideas to get to the decent ones, it'd be a fairly disappointing listening experience.”
Something tells me he’s probably being a bit too self-deprecating for his own good. But hey, it’s his party.
Andy Shauf headlines the Casbah on Sunday, March 19, with Aldous Harding opening. Tickets are available here.