The Neon Skyline is what you would call a concept album; a tag which for some reason seems to have derogatory connotations, maybe because it’s a shtick that artists produce when we think they’re getting too clever or we just aren’t as familiar with the concept of concept albums as listeners were in the 60s and 70s.
Andy Shauf either bucks or ignores these connotations. He’s no stranger to concept albums and it rather suits his style of songwriting. He has an amazing, sometimes Paul Simon-esque, ability to tell stories and convey dialogue – which sounds particularly tricky – and still produce catchy, subtle and interesting music. His last release, 2016’s The Party, was a critically acclaimed collection of rowdy and reflective songs telling the story of a group of strangers at an awkward, drunken party. The new release, The Neon Skyline, has a more defined narrative arc telling the story of a man through the highs and lows of a night out at the local bars with friends, while struggling to get over his ex-girlfriend, who happens to show up during the night.
After listening through, there are no obvious singles on the album, except for maybe ‘Try Again’. What is more apparent on The Neon Skyline is the focus story-telling, not only through the lyrics, but also through the ability of the song composition to capture the mood of the narrative as well; from the expectant excitement of the album opener, ‘Neon Skyline’, where you get the feeling that the protagonist can’t wait to get home and get straight out to the bar (the Neon Skyline) to meet his friend Charlie and Rose, the barmaid, who “somehow always knows what I need”; to the next song, ‘Where Are You Judy’, through jazzy clarinet and synth you get the realisation and yearning that your ex-girlfriend is back in town and you might have a chance to relight the fire. There aren’t many albums that I listen to where I care more about the lyrics than the music, but in this case it was unavoidable to get brought into the story.
Now that our man is reminded of Judy he spends three songs thinking about her whilst his mate Charlie carries on in his ear, until they’re interrupted by Claire and the kind of personal, revelatory conversation you can only have in a bar when you’re more intoxicated and less inhibited. There’s even time for some typical pub chat about reincarnation before Judy appears out of nowhere and they head to another bar. What then plays out through ‘Try Again’, ‘Fire Truck’ and ‘Changer’ – arguably the best songs on the album – is the hopeful, desperate and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to try to win Judy over, finally realising that she’s moved on and you’ll just have to deal with it. The lyrics are witty, awkward and at times a bit too relatable:
“And it reminds me of that night‘Fire Truck’
When you said that you were coming home
And then I waited up ’til four in the morning
She says, “I remember, and why the fuck
Would this be a good time to bring that up?”
And I am silent because I’m not sure
Sometimes I feel like I should never speak again“
The feel of the album as a whole is more understated compared to its predecessor, possibly because this album is predominantly led by the acoustic guitar, and the songs are less riff driven. Shauf had full control over the sound and the direction of the album, having produced and provided all the instrumentation for the recording. The songs themselves sound simple but can be unusually arranged with unexpected chord progressions and melodic twists, layered with synth electric guitar and the now almost synonymous clarinets.
The Neon Skyline is surprising and entertaining but misses the enduring songs that were a feature of the previous album. For that reason, this album is not as memorable as its predecessor, although the experience of listening to The Neon Skyline is so compelling and evocative in it’s own new and different way, maybe the two can’t be reasonably compared.