Album Review: Andy Shauf – Norm

[ANTI-; 2023]

True to its name Wilds, the last album from Canadian multi-instrumentalist Andy Shauf was a more relaxed version of the singer-songwriter than when we’d seen him last. His breakthrough solo effort, 2020’s The Neon Skyline, came two years after his stint as lead vocalist for Foxwarren, and proved songwriting skills were more than just structured singalongs – he could be loose and allow his music and narratives to wander. Returning to form for his latest, a sequel to The Neon Skyline almost, Shauf introduces us to Norm.

The titular Norm functions as both the storyteller’s protagonist, and the noun for standard, as this go-round tightens more often than it relaxes. Shauf is still highly influenced vocally by Elliot Smith, and while his lyrical directions aren’t as similar, there’s no doubt a comfort in his voice that hearkens back to the late legend. Like Smith, Shauf is unafraid to touch the darkness with his fingers and swirl around black pools.

Lush instrumentation, all played by Shauf, flourishes around every corner of Norm. The opening “Wasted on You” springs forth elementally with pianos and strings, and all the while Shauf speaks from the perspective of the Christian God and asking “Was all my love wasted on you?” to the clamoring pious people who want into Heaven. Shauf doesn’t hide his faith like some do, he even began in a Christian pop punk band called Captain as their drummer, and last year his one-off single “Satan” contained a dry wit with its roots in religion.

Growing up in a music store had its benefits for sure, and every instrument Shauf plays on Norm (and every album for that matter) taps with focus and affection. He’s not just going through the motions, he loves these instruments like he loves his God. He picks at his guitar on “Halloween Store” while delicately telling an addendum to the same sort of story he’s been telling for three years now, but it all comes across poignantly. Some of his quotidian descriptions have a Courtney Barnett-esque presence to them, explaining the monotony of the day-to-day and somehow keeping us invested along the way.

Shauf intentionally lures us in and traps us with his beautiful instrumentation, but his words depict a darker tone. The title track “Norm” possesses a jazzy nature, with keys aplenty that entice while delving further into this character Norm, who seems reasonable at first but Shauf subtly exposes how a more unsettled persona, who hears a disembodied voice beseeching him to stop his wicked ways if he wants to get to the Promised Land. Moments like “Catch Your Eye”, with its desperation to be noticed, and “Telephone”, with its demand to pick up his calls, display symptoms of obsession, bordering on stalker traits and harassment, all shrouded under the guise of melodic folk that makes it seem strangely friendly.

Norm plays with our emotions more than Wilds or The Neon Skyline did because Shauf’s writing from perspective of what could be considered a villain, and his impeccable storytelling takes liberties where others dare not. He crafts an imaginary world for Norm, one that takes his tale from promising new love to the pitfalls of relationships and the constant desire for affection. Shauf doesn’t give it all away either, Norm demands repeated listens to capture the heart of Norm’s story, and Shauf will escort you every time.