Best of 2016: Andy Shauf's "The Party"
By Mandi Kimes
On May 20th, acclaimed young singer-songwriter Andy Shauf released an immensely imaginative work called The Party, which is not exactly a concept record, but it was a way for the singer-songwriter to get out of his own head. Think of it more link an after-party record, or for the hangover the next day, when only Shauf’s songs can make any sense of the emotionally-charged scenarios that played out the night before. All of this is set to ornate arrangements of fuzzed-out guitars, string sections, clarinets and dreamy synths, all draped over delicate piano, acoustic guitars and rainy-day drums.
It’s worth noting that, aside from the string arrangements, Shauf played every instrument on the album. His songs possess a sound that is both familiar and yet there is also something new there, in the words and the unique instrumentation. While there are guitars, bass and drums, there is also a clarinet utilized in a way you have doubtfully heard before. Shauf exemplifies the same musicality you’d hear from Sufjan Stevens in his orchestrated melodies and Tobias Jesso, Jr. in his catchy melodies and knack for lyricism over simplified chords.
The Party begins with “The Magician,” as you hear a guitar strum and piano plinking its way towards the front door, and the first sound of orchestrated bliss greets you as you enter. The song narrates a member at the party, the “magician” as he’s known, waltzing about, entertaining guests with his lavish stories, all while trying to hide something. The strings in the second verse paired with the infectious off-beats and clarinet melodies make this tune incredibly catchy. “Just a shaking hand without a concrete plan,” Shauf sings, as the “magician” gets nervous trying to keep the act going.
“Early to the Party” describes the token awkward party guest that arrives early and wants to assist the host in preparation, but should be best staying out of the way. The third verse then explains one of the major themes of the album: the relationship dynamic between Jimmy and Sherry. Jimmy mistreats Sherry, which leads Sherry to miss out on most of the party fun. Musically, the song is mixed very well with all of the instruments stepping forward for their spotlight and stepping back to allow room for growth. This is especially evident in the string section between verses, as well as the orchestral bridge that continues to build and stacks harmonies as the bridge progresses, similar to “A Day in the Life,” and eventually drops out to just a piano for the beginning of the third verse.
The tinkering piano and guitar duet with a swinging beat sets the tone for the scene we are about to witness for “Quite Like You.” The story behind the song: Jimmy and Sherry just broke up and Jimmy is off with his friends being the drunken asshole ex-boyfriend every girl knows and (used to) love. The protagonist approaches Sherry, noticing she’s not having a good time, and after a misguided sign of affection, begins to pour his heart out for her and speak poorly of his friend, all while spilling his drink and not getting the hint that Sherry is growing a bit uncomfortable. Instrumentally, the song is upbeat and carries the steady swinging groove in the bass throughout the verse, not distracting from the story. The reverberated piano strike after the phrase “You know I’ve never really met someone like you,” is so beautifully executed without flaw each time it appears, especially at the very end of the song
The strum of a guitar introduces “Worst in You” before introducing electric guitar and the rhythm section. The melody of this song is cleverly written both in the piano and the vocals. It’s the most pop-friendly song on the album that depicts a party guest looking for his girlfriend and assumes she’s off with another man when she can’t be found: “Why do I always find the worst in you? // Do you always find the worst in me?” The song picks up in a cheery energy after the girlfriend has been found. The strings in the chorus help distinguish from the rest of the song in its descending melody line.
Another favorite of mine, “Eyes of Them All,” could easily be the next single from the album. The off-beat melody in the clarinet paired with the swinging guitar and bass establishes the dance for the song. While the lyrics are a bit whispered and muffled throughout the song, it describes a lone dancer in the middle of the room while everyone is watching her. The high-pitched piano strike on 1, 2 and the and-of 3 backs the catchy chorus delicately with the lovely harmonies of “You’ve got the eyes of them all.” It’s a beautiful song and stands out on the album as probably the most “party-friendly” song.
The last track begins with just an acoustic guitar, and the image of a girl dancing in slow motion flashes before my eyes. In “Martha Sways,” the singer talks about how the dancer reminds him of an ex with the way she moves, and as he approaches her to join the dance, he holds her just as the way he held his ex. “Dance, dance to the radio // While the devil takes control” he sings as thoughts of another girl race through his mind. The strings in the bridge play on to accompany the dance, sounding similar to The Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home.” The third verse is beautiful and heart-breaking as he sings “I wanna die // Dancing in her eyes,” with the tinkering piano returning in a similar fashion as the album introduction. “Martha spins and I catch her hand // She smiles and laughs, bringing me back,” is the last line of the album, which reminds the singer that it was all a dream.
Front-to-back, The Party is beautiful, inspiring, and the perfect storybook into how someone who is a wallflower at a party might perceive the people they encounter. The stressed out host, the fighting couple, the girl dancing on her own, the boy outside who just smoked his last pack of cigarettes, and the twists and turns that weave through the dance floor. Andy Shauf remains to be one of my favorite songwriters on the scene today, and the album exceeded my expectations.