Andy Shauf's Sinister, Lovesick 'Norm' Will Have You Looking over Your Shoulder

BY Emilie HanskampPublished Feb 13, 2023

Andy Shauf is a world-builder, and over the years he's granted listeners a visitor's pass into the lives of a motley crew of characters. We've spent a night with a socially anxious group of friends on 2016's The Party, tagged along for an evening at Shauf's Toronto haunt on 2020's Neon Skyline and peeked into the life of a fictional ex-girlfriend on 2021's Wilds. But on Shauf's seventh studio album, Norm, the singer-songwriter takes his conceptual approach a step further. The story is more complex, the melodies are more pronounced and the focus is far more sinister.

Norm is a storytelling slow burn, flexing a finessed narrative control; we're introduced to the album's titular character under the guise of sweet, synth-driven grooves on "Catch Your Eye" as Norm follows a person up and down grocery aisles. Shauf uses the unassuming setting to create a fleeting opportunity for relatability in the name of unrequited love.

It isn't until the following track, "Telephone," that Norm's intentions are crystallized. Atop sparse drumming, a lulling synth and feather-light piano, the sweetness dissipates as we realize that Norm is not simply longing for this person — he's calling and watching them from outside their house. "You always looked confused / Then you'd turn and close the blinds." In just a few words, Shauf reveals his newest concept character: a lovesick stalker.

Over the course of twelve characteristically lush chamber pop tracks, we follow Norm down the tunnel of obsession; he's standing outside your window on "You Didn't See," he's following you into the movie theatre on "Paradise Cinema" and he's accosting you inside a Halloween store on "Sunset." While you don't typically have to worry about spoilers in an album review, it speaks to Shauf's storytelling chops that the fate of Norm's victim might be best left as a surprise. (For the curious, the answer lies between the ending of "Sunset" and the last line of "Long throw.")

Shauf has explored dark narratives before — "Wendell Walker," "My Dear Helen," "Jerry Was a Clerk" — but never has his storytelling been quite as meticulous. With a refined economy of words, the singer-songwriter is saying more with less. His lyricism is concise but expansive. Although most tracks hover around the 3-minute mark, the storyline is the most layered that we've heard from Shauf yet.

This lyrical restraint is mirrored in Shauf's production. Norm is altogether more tranquil than his most recent albums. Listeners can still expect elements of Shauf's trademark sound: warm clarinets, textured strings, minimalist drums and the singer-songwriter's distinctly accented croon. But the biggest shift is his emphasis on synths, which steer the melodic ship on many of the album's tracks. The juxtaposition between his timeless folk sound and the digital-forward grooves delivers a fresh soundscape for the singer-songwriter. 

On a surface level, much of the album's music is sweet, breezy and light, betraying the sinister tone of the lyrics. But on a closer listen, Norm is peppered with sonic clues. Shauf cleverly uses dissonant notes and tonal shifts to push the narrative forward. This often occurs at the end of songs — an uneasy clarinet, an off-kilter piano, a dial tone — suggesting a darkness that occurs in the space between tracks. It's an album that feels peerless in its approach to top-to-bottom storytelling. Ever the recording perfectionist, Shauf doesn't seem to have included a single note or word without purpose.

Norm doesn't merely offer a sequential, literal telling of events. Rather, it weaves together a handful of narrators (including God Himself) into Norm's complex universe — all of whom have misunderstood or misdirected love in some way. As each narrator leans on God for guidance and support, Shauf begs the question: who will God choose to help? Who deserves it? While you won't find any explicit judgments in his writing, there is meaning to be mined in every line. For one, why does God help Norm hide behind the bushes on "You Didn't See"? No character, divine or mortal, is spared from Shauf's observational musings.

Like with most of Shauf's writing, the existentialism is balanced with humour. Whether it's God having a conversation with Jesus about his love being under-appreciated on "Wasted On You" or Norm's anxiety-ridden inner dialogue about leaving his door unlocked on the standout track "Halloween Store" — Shauf further demonstrates his ability to tackle big themes (religion, love, fatalism) without losing sight of the absurd. He zeroes in on specific encounters and makes larger statements in the process. So many artists approach an album like a personal diary but fall flat on authenticity. It's interesting that Shauf's fictional stories, far removed from himself, can feel so honest in comparison.

On Norm, Shauf is inviting an active listener to play the role of armchair investigator, judge and jury. When does the wistful become obsessive? The romantic become delusional? He leaves it for us to decide. It's an album that further solidifies his position as a genre-leading storyteller, and it will have you humming along as much as it'll have you looking over your shoulder.
(Arts & Crafts)

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