Album Review :: Andy Shauf :: Norm

by maggie cheal-tarr 

If certain sections of Twitter (or, rather, X) are to be believed, we are currently living through an epidemic of male loneliness. You might have seen op-eds, graphs, or surveys making the rounds, supposedly demonstrating that North American men in the 2020s have fewer friends, experience depression at higher rates, and are having less sex than ever before. Whether this framing of affairs is true and what ought to be done about it is anyone’s guess. But almost as if anticipating the contentious social media discourse on the subject, Saskatchewan-based folk musician Andy Shauf released Norm on February 10, 2023. The singer and multi-instrumentalist’s eighth LP fits perfectly among his catalogue as another perceptive and affecting exploration of the psyche of lonely men.

Sonically, Norm is softer, slower, and more synth-oriented than his indie folk hits The Party and The Neon Skyline. (If this worries you–fret not, Shauf-heads! He still makes room for several of his characteristic clarinet interludes!) The subtle evolution of his sound disappointed me at first blush, but then I recalled that his prior albums also needed a couple of listens to grow on me. My admiration for Norm, as with the rest of his discography, has only increased as I’ve familiarized myself with its lyrical and melodic turns.

As has become a trend in Shauf’s oeuvre, Norm is a concept album – one that tells a sustained, if ambiguous, narrative from three perspectives. It opens with “Wasted on You,” in which the biblical God opines to Jesus Christ about humanity’s lack of appreciation for his eternal love. We are then introduced to the titular Norm via his narration of the songs “Catch Your Eye” and “Telephone,” which detail the character’s attempts to get the attention of his crush. In a clear instance of the author leaving the narrative open to interpretation, Norm’s love interest–whom Shauf referred to in an interview with Stereogum as “the pursued person”–is not gendered at any point in the lyrics and is described exclusively as “you.”

Norm gets his wish after driving to a Halloween store and encountering the person sitting in their car, smiling at him. The album’s pivotal moment arrives in “Sunset.” The two characters have a pleasant chat in the store, but upon exiting into the parking lot, discover that the pursued person’s car is missing. Norm observes that, curiously, “you don’t seem to be surprised.” He offers them a ride home, and they immediately accept, thinking nothing of it, at which point Norm instead hightails it out of the city while professing his deep and abiding love for this person (whom, to be clear, he has spoken to precisely once). “It feels like I know you so well,” he thinks in one of the album’s many comically ironic lyrics.

In the following song, “Daylight Dreaming,” Shauf turns back the clock to the sudden disappearance of the pursued person’s car. We discover that their ex-partner, our third and final narrator, has towed it away in a reenactment of a practical joke that the driver used to play on their ex when the two were dating. This was some sort of attempt to win back their former lover or at least to hear their cherished “big laugh” again, but evidently, the gambit failed. It is at this point that the story becomes hazy. The remainder of the album plays out as an extended dénouement. The tow truck driver arrives at a Halloween party, expecting their ex to show up, but they never do. This is the last we hear of Norm or the pursued person. The fate of both parties is left to the listener’s imagination.

Shauf’s carefully structured songwriting makes itself apparent in the way his compositions’ meanings are altered by the accumulated context of previous songs or even reversed in retrospect with the addition of subsequent information. For instance, “Telephone” starts as a gorgeous paean to an imagined lover’s voice before we realize in the second verse that Norm is dictating it while standing outside their house, hiding in the bushes, and spying on them through the window. “Halloween Store,” the album’s most upbeat song, could have been read as the prelude to a parking lot meet-cute if we didn’t already know of Norm’s dubious intentions. Finally, “Don’t Let It Get to You” could be interpreted as a soothing meditation on rolling with life’s punches and learning to accept your place in the world–that is, only if removed from its placement within the album, which implies that the song is God’s reassurance to Norm and the tow truck driver that their appalling behaviour is simply the product of unforeseen circumstances and that they needn’t burden themselves by reflecting on it.

With Norm, Shauf succeeds at crafting a sympathetic portrait of the titular character not in the sense that his actions are defensible but rather that the motivations for those actions are rooted in a profoundly human longing for intimacy and interpersonal connection. (To that point, the first line of “Paradise Cinema”–“Seems like he’s fallen in love / With every bright smile he sees along the way”–is especially poignant and personally relatable.) That the album’s central figure is an oblivious creep only adds to the resonance of its themes, inviting the listener to interrogate their own desires and the ways they go about satisfying them. Not everybody stalks their romantic interests through the aisles of a grocery store or kidnaps them from a Spirit Halloween, but maybe we’ve misread signals, made false assumptions, or upset a loved one with an ill-considered comment. The gulf between ourselves and those we cast as “evil” might not be as wide as we’d like to think.

The reprise of the opening song’s chorus in the closer “All of My Love” (“Was all [of] my love / Wasted on you?”) re-emphasizes the protagonists’ fundamental misapprehension of love. It is not mere acquiescence to the demands of an all-powerful God or to the advances of a supposedly well-meaning admirer; it requires effort, patience, and reciprocation. For love to be received, it must first be given. Until the three narrators figure that out, they will never find what they so desperately desire.

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