Andy Shauf’s new album reminds me of this odd little 1991 film, Slacker, one of the first by Richard Linklater of Dazed and Confused and Boyhood fame. Plotless and conversation-driven, it follows freaks, bohemians, and radicals through Austin, Texas—the camera pursuing one set of characters talking (about UFOs, Madonna’s pap smear, terrorism, etc.) until they cross paths with another, to whom the camera, and point of view, then attaches.
This is the way that Shauf’s The Party moves, each song attaching to a different perspective in the same space. The space in this case, though, is the confined area of a single party (plus the space outside for cigarette breaks), and the characters here discuss much more mundane issues—the kind found in any old city or, more accurately, the small Saskatchewan towns that the Canadian singer-songwriter knows best.
Throughout The Party, the storytelling songwriter crafts small dramas between characters fumbling around from their awkwardness or intoxication. The cast includes the person who burdens the hosts by arriving long before the other guests (“Early to the Party”), the guy who finds himself putting down his friend Jimmy to win over Jimmy’s girlfriend (“Quite Like You”—and, spoiler alert, it doesn’t work), the girl who later stumbles through a confession to, we assume, the same Jimmy (“To You”), and the one who jumps to conclusions when he can’t find his significant other (“The Worst in You”). Each scene is compact and colloquial, but packed with all of the emotional weight that parties like this can exercise on their guests.
Like the views of his different characters, Shauf has a talent for adopting different instrumental voices. He provides his own guitar, bass, piano, and horns, deftly weaving in each part to create a richly-orchestrated sound. And while his previous album, The Bearer of Bad News, was self-mixed and engineered, this one enjoys the luster and polish of Studio One in Canada. All of that adds up to work that departs from past comparisons to Elliott Smith and moves towards moments of the warm indie rock of Belle & Sebastian or the piano-driven ‘70s pop of Todd Rundgren. In songs such as “Quite Like You” and “Eyes of Them All,” bouncy bass lines and catchy piano and horn melodies make for a light, upbeat mood.
But don’t be fooled: This album is not party music. Underlying each song and each mini narrative it contains is a touch of sadness familiar in Shauf’s oeuvre. It’s most blatant in the Elliott-Smithiest song, “Alexander All Alone,” about a boy who almost dies (or does), but most affecting elsewhere, when it tinges the happier moments. In the final slow song, “Martha Sways,” for example, the narrator dances closely with a pretty girl, but his mind is elsewhere—on a former love.
Throughout The Party, you can read Shauf in the many characters like these, who stand at a remove from what’s in front of them. He’s in the person in “Eyes of Them All” who watches someone dance unselfconsciously in the middle of the room and thinks, “This town can feel so small / I need stretch my legs,” and he’s in the confessional person in “To You” who needs to get “things off [her] chest.” Perhaps most of all, though, he’s in the magician of the opening song, conjuring visions while making himself disappear. Is this the artist himself speaking, reminding us that under a polished album is a “shaking hand without a plan?” If so, we can only hope for more of his exquisite party tricks.