Best of 2012: These things will kill me one day
Sometimes when I listen to Andy Shauf I picture him as I’ve seen him performing on stage: feet tucked back on a stool’s footrest, back hunched as he bends over his acoustic guitar, strumming the strings about as softly as possible while still registering an audible tone and whisper-singing into the microphone.
When I listen to his new album The Bearer Of Bad News, it’s easy to close my eyes and picture him continuing to hunch over further and further until he starts to collapse into himself like a dying star, curling up into an ever-smaller ball until he eventually disappears into nothingness.
The Bearer Of Bad News is that kind of album, the sound of an artist already pre-disposed to wandering into the softer, more disquieting side of the musical spectrum retreating to ever-darker territory.
The record has a hypnotic quality that falls less in line with Shauf’s breakout debut Darker Days and more with his work since that album. The recent EP Sam Jones Feeds His Demons was a brilliant primer for this release, for a few reasons. Most importantly it was an exercise in writing for and about a character. The four song suite sketched out the tortured life of the title character, who overcame his harmful predilections to find love, a love he would end up destroying because of those same predilections. Call it practice for the incredible storytelling on the full-length record (even though they were all written during the same period of time). It also introduced listeners to what is now a fairly central element in his songs: the clarinet. “Two Little Clouds” is an easy, wistful-sounding track on that teaser release that features the nimble woodwind harmonizing in two parts; it’s one of those sounds that is at first both familiar and unfamiliar, its airy tone nimbly floating across the mix. It’s weightlessness seems a pretty stark contrast to the lyrical heft and sombre tone of the rest of the instrumentation on both records and the overall plodding pace.
That lonesome woodwind is a remarkable complement to Shauf’s voice. His singing sounds uniformly hushed and almost removed for most of the record; lines other singers might hit more passionately, like “Jesus, she’s a good girl; I don’t want to ruin her,” are delivered with almost the same force and insistence as every other. He still has a very sharp sense of melody but it almost comes across as though he doesn’t want anything to get in the way of his lyrics this time around.
That’s for good reason. While the sound of Shauf’s music has made a subtle shift over the years this particular album is not about the music. The music is great, but The Bearer Of Bad News is a record that cannot exist without the words. The lyric sheet for this album reads as a full piece, a continuous flow of words from one song to the next. That’s imperative in getting the whole experience of the record; Shauf didn’t spend more than four years writing clarinet harmonies for this record (or maybe he did, I don’t know how hard it is to write clarinet harmonies). He spent that time peering into the darkest corners of his mind, pulling out what he found, and arranging it all into a mini-universe populated by some of the worst fears and darkest ideas of humankind.
Nearly every possible horror of small town life is represented in the characters on The Bearer Of Bad News; it opens with the aged jock, a former football star who is so lost and unhappy in his post-glory days that even when given the opportunity to play the hero he chooses not to, hoping only for the sweet release of an early death. Shauf as the presumed subject of a later song concedes to a lost paramour, “I will die a poor man, covered in dust and dreaming of you.” He postulates on the danger of living in the place “between heaven and hell” and positions himself as the disaffected singer/songwriter who needs to self-medicate just to act like he still believes in the words he’s written. “Jesus, She’s A Good Girl” reads like a left-over from the Sam Jones EP with both the savior and the protagonist, liquor on his breath, unable to stop the latter from doing harm to a woman in his life.
But three songs that concern two stories are the real centerpieces here, the deepest moments of darkness that show Shauf has developed a keen eye for detail and a knack for hitting every raw nerve in the listener’s body.
The seemingly never-ending “Wendell Walker” is a mournful, dirge-like tale that stomps along in ebbs and swells, eight and a half minutes of agonizing lyrics about how the prairie winter can make a person’s mind not right in the head; how that derangement can make you do things, hear things; how a dalliance with another man’s wife can turn into so much more; and how a rifle, a moment of passion, and a frigid winter’s night can lead to an unspeakable tragedy. Shauf hits all the little details that make the story take on an entirely more vivid tone. Needless to say the grim saga ends in roughly the darkest way possible, lyrically at least, while the insistent drums fall away at just the right time, cymbal crashes culminating in a frenzy before disappearing suddenly, underscoring the shock of the moment before a contemplative guitar strumming provides a denouement that is sorely needed for the listener to contemplate what they’ve just heard. This is a kind of powerhouse song that brings to mind something like Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” or Bruce Springsteen’s “41 Shots,” an epic tale that drives home their aesthetic with aplomb.
The final songs on the record come together in a similar fashion. “Jerry Was A Clerk” is a piano-driven number about some friends who set up to steal some money from an old farmer who doesn’t trust banks. They converge on the man’s property under cover of night only to have the plan go awry, with a member of the party left behind while the others speed away in Jerry’s van, not stopping to consider what they might be fleeing from. The music shifts abruptly for the closing track, Shauf’s stark, slowly-hammered piano teasing out the isolation and emotion of the farmer who appears only briefly in the preceding song. Alcohol again proves to play a part, as it does consistently throughout the record, but in this instance it turns out to be a consolatory element as the old man reveals an ending to the saga that is at once astounding, shocking, and heartbreaking. I won’t spoil it but it’s a deft turn that is proof positive of how much Shauf has thought about these songs and what he aims to do with them: blast a hole right through your fucking heart. This isn’t necessarily the album I would’ve anticipated from Shauf but he’s traveled to a place I would never have imagined he could go and I’m glad he did. Lord knows I wouldn’t want to live there.
It’s probably also worth mentioning that the violence and depravity touched on here is not at all about exploitation or shock. Shauf has created these characters and situations to explore a facet of humanity that is all too often oversimplified: why good people do bad things, why bad things happen to good people, and where those people might end up when they do. Part of his gift as a writer is the ability to imbue a four minute song with empathy and pathos instead of condemnation and damnation.
In the midst of all this human cruelty, despair, and misfortune Shauf asks a faraway lover, “Is it as bad as it seems?” In that moment one can’t help but think of a young Hayden and his similarly-titled breakthrough single, itself every bit the paean to total misery that this album is. It’s a record that one could mistake for a light, even lackluster set of songs if their ears aren’t open to the gravity of the content. An album this fascinatingly bleak and masterfully written leaves one to wonder if Andy Shauf will have the kind of staying power Hayden Desser, Leonard Cohen, or Tom McRae has enjoyed.
After all, misery loves company.
Get your Andy Shauf material from the man’s own Bandcamp page. Seriously, do it. Tour dates with Evening Hymns are below.
November 2nd - Victoria BC - Bean Around The World
November 3rd - Kelowna BC - Streaming Cafe
November 4th - Lethbridge AB - The Miz
November 5th - Edmonton AB - Wunderbar
November 7th - Calgary AB - The Lantern
November 8th - Saskatoon SK - Vangelis
November 10th - Winnipeg MB - Aqua Books
November 11th - Regina SK - The Artful Dodger