Singer-songwriter, instrumentalist, producer, storyteller and jack-of-all-trades Andy Shauf is back with another fascinating concept album.
“Norm” is Shauf’s seventh solo album and certainly one of his most ambitious projects to date. Across 12 songs, Shauf intricately weaves a narrative centered on the titular Norm, a man infatuated with a woman who does not know he exists. The lyrics of the first several tracks devolve from seemingly innocent pining to flat-out stalking. From there, Norm’s freakish behavior only continues.
The first verse and chorus of “Telephone” seem at first to depict an earnest yearning for someone, longing to speak on the telephone with them just to get a chance to hear their voice. When Shauf sings, “If I was listening / To you talk about your day,” it sounds like a beautiful unrequited love song. With the second verse, “I used to call you on the telephone / I couldn’t catch my breath / To expel a single word / You would hang up your telephone / You always looked confused / Then you’d turn and close the blinds,” it becomes clear that Norm is actually rather frightening.
Lyrically, Shauf is at his best on “Norm,” although the album is better understood when the listener is aware of the story behind each song. While reading up on Shauf’s song descriptions is enjoyable and enhances the experience, it also creates a bit of an issue. In being poetic, Shauf can sometimes be vague and aspects of the story that he intended to be displayed in certain songs can be very difficult to recognize unless the listener already knows the backstory, explained by Shauf himself via interviews and track descriptions on Apple Music. The story is much less explicit than Shauf’s previous albums, like The Party, The Neon Skyline and Wilds. The lack of clarity in the story (but especially in its ending) feels out of character for Shauf.
To be fair, he is certainly trying new things narrative-wise here. His prior story-based albums were structured quite differently. For example, “The Party” has a song dedicated to each character at the same party, all experiencing different things. On this album, some songs are from Norm’s perspective and some are from the perspective of God looking down on Norm with shame. It works strangely well for the most part, even after the lines blur between what is real and what is not. Yet, it still ends up being confusing as to who is saying what. Particularly, the last few songs on “Norm” feel out of place. It seems odd that Shauf would spend the majority of the album on a narrative about Norm to then cut off said narrative at an odd place. The last couple of tracks are simply about the message of the entire album, albeit a strong message — that even if a god exists, things happen in life (good and bad) for which there is no control.
All that being said, Shauf does brilliant work on “Norm.” He sticks to his guns on most tracks on the album, producing an indie folk sound in the instrumentation. Although, he flirts with several different genres and musical styles that are new ground for him. The outro of “You Didn’t See” is essentially a jazz piano solo accompanied by Shauf’s own airy humming, soft, simple drums and a warm bassline.
On “Halloween Store,” undoubtedly one of the strongest tracks on “Norm,” Shauf plays with a very contemporary sound, using sweeping synths during the chorus. It creates an ever-so-slight sonic unease that plays into the dark, sinister nature of the lyrics and overarching story of the album while still sounding upbeat enough to fool a listener who may not be paying attention to the words being sung into believing the song is positive and sweet. Shauf uses these synths to great effect throughout the album. He also plays every instrument on this album himself (including clarinet) as he did with each album prior, which is no small feat.
While some aspects of “Norm”’s story are vague to a fault, Shauf ultimately produces a strong, consistent album sonically and lyrically that ebbs and flows in all the right ways.