If an opera is a feature-length movie, Andy Shauf’s concept albums are short films, expertly crystallized images of one night, one character, one lost love or the beginnings of another. Neon Skyline, the follow-up album to 2016’s The Party, displays Shauf’s skill for creating these carefully crafted vignettes of characters and their backstories within just 11 songs. The songwriter has refined his storytelling abilities throughout his entire career, and this record is the very obvious fruit of that effort. Lines like “Why do I do the things I do / When I know I am losing you,” cut right to the core of the listener, building on one another to create a mood of reflection and self-interrogation.
Neon Skyline, much like The Party, focuses around a specific night and its context in memory, this time at the Skyline Diner in Parkdale, Toronto, instead of a house party. The narrators do not change or bump into each other like they do in The Party, but instead the album maintains a steady first-person perspective, as the speaker goes through a night at the diner with his best friend Charlie, reminiscing about his failed relationship with ex-girlfriend Judy and chatting with whoever comes in the door. The album reads like a diary entry, tunnelling through the narrator’s memories, good and bad, as one reminds him of another. Each character gets their own spotlight, but it always comes back to him, each image and line of dialogue leading him further into himself.
For a record that centers around emotional discord and confusion so predominantly, being anchored in one location lends itself to deeper introspection. The listener can hear the door shut behind the narrator as he walks in, the metallic pop of the waitress, Rose, opening a can of beer for him, Charlie’s laugh as he stumbles in at midnight. It’s a cinematic universe held within the bubble of a diner’s neon lights and hazy incandescent memories. Shauf resourcefully revitalizes the familiar sounds of his previous discography ― lilting clarinet, shuffling guitar, soft snares and the musician’s husky vocals ― to create a 360-degree view of not only the diner in the middle of the night but every moment that has brought the narrator there in the first place. As he watches Rose smoke in “Clove Cigarette,” he comes to a realization, his emotions coming into focus at the same time: “You take some steps forward and some steps backward,” he sings, “And it just doesn’t matter cause I’m on track.”
In a strange way, Neon Skyline feels confessional, even if the narrator is not Shauf himself. This is the songwriter’s greatest strength ― he embodies the thoughts and feelings of a given character completely, pouring an entire novel’s level of world-building into three minutes of incredible music. Multiplied into 11, Shauf covers each facet of the night with startling clarity and care, using his narrator’s inner conflict as a prism, with each fractured ray of light explored in detail.