The Neon Skyline
The elevator pitch for Andy Shauf’s fourth proper album sounds like the opening line to some hack comedian’s routine: A guy walks into a bar. But from that simple premise, the Toronto-via-Saskatchewan indie-rock raconteur welcomes us into a richly detailed universe centered around a sad-sack barfly drinking away the bittersweet memories of an ex at his local...until she just happens to turn up. The term “concept album” often implies grandeur and excess, but The Neon Skyline presents a compact 11-track song cycle that exudes the breezy bonhomie of early-'70s Paul Simon, and where the only instrumental indulgence is the occasional sax honk or clarinet solo. The album is named for the tavern in which the story is set (an alternate-universe version of the Skyline diner in Toronto’s Parkdale neighborhood), and throughout the record, Shauf’s quizzical first-person observations routinely blur the line between autobiographical fact and embellished fiction. “I always start out writing things that I think are pretty far off from real life,” he tells Apple Music. "But then I take another look and it's pretty obvious what I'm writing about: me.” The plot of The Neon Skyline transpires over the course of a single night, each track stuffed with seemingly innocuous conversations and random reminiscences that add up to a profound, poignant meditation on unrequited desire and existential crises. Here, Shauf pulls up a barstool as he guides us through the story, chapter by chapter.
Neon Skyline “This was one that I wrote pretty early in the batch. I have always listened to a lot of Paul Simon—I just like the way he phrases things, so I was kind of trying to learn from that a little. This song kind of gave me the idea for what I was going to do with the record. There was a point halfway through where I thought I was going to scrap the whole Skyline story, and I started to just write about this character Judy. So I wrote a different song that was going to be the theme song for the record, but ultimately, it came back to this one.”
Where Are You Judy “Judy is like that ex that was super fun, but you can point to a lot of things that happened that were little red flags or hints of what was going to happen. She's someone that you kind of never got over.”
Clove Cigarette “Honestly, I wanted to stop writing about smoking because I feel like it's clichéd. But then, you know, you're standing outside of a bar and someone's smoking a clove and you're like, 'Oooh, what is that cinammony smell!' For me, smelling a clove cigarette always takes me back to a really specific time in my life when I was living in Regina [Saskatchewan] and trying to quit cigarettes by smoking clove cigarettes—which were delicious, and really bad for you.”
Thirteen Hours “It's kind of based on the idea that traveling with a partner is hell, though I've never really traveled with a partner. But I remember this one time I had like a fancy hotel for some reason with a friend, and I saw this poster for a contest that was like, ‘Get three days free at this hotel!' And I was like, 'Oh, my god, that would be hell—just imagine the fights! It would be three days of fighting!' I do realize that's not everyone's experience, but I tried to write about that."
Things I Do “This one is pretty much based on my real life-ish. In the song, Judy wants a little bit of time apart, and then buddy just shows up at the same place, so it's awkward. I've been there before. You walk away wondering why you did that.”
Living Room “At this point in the album, we meet the character Claire, and we’re not even sure if [the narrator] even knows her, but she walks up to the bar and tells this super personal story, so he’s caught a little off guard.”
Dust Kids “I ended up down some internet vortex at some point and wound up buying this book about kids who could remember their past lives when they were really young. The kids would point to old pictures of people and be like, 'That's me and that's my friend Bob.' And then they would look it up and figure out who the people were and it actually was someone named Bob. I found that really interesting, and every time I would start drinking, I would tell everyone about this book, probably really obnoxiously! So I wrote a song about it.”
The Moon & Try Again “I wrote these at the same time. At this point [the narrator]’s not really having fun at the bar. He’s invited his friend Charlie out to have a drink, and he’s pretty much just sitting there thinking the whole time. It's kind of a turning point in the album where Judy shows up and he's hopeful. But he reaches for her hand at the end and she's like, ‘No, it can't be like that anymore.'”
Fire Truck “I wrote this one just because my studio is right by a fire station and every cigarette break I had, there was a fire truck that kept going by. It’s a very morbid song. But, you know, bad things that happen to you can be good for you in a way—they force you to change.”
Changer “This one's kind of loose, lyrically. I think different people could interpret it in different ways. But I kind of took it as [the narrator] remembering times before, when everything was fine and normal, and then this whole story comes along and it's a reminder that you don't have to keep repeating the same actions and falling into the same habits. You can change and move on.”