For all of its meticulous piano flourishes and hushed vocals, there is something disconcerting at the heart of the new Andy Shauf album, Norm. No stranger to devising tight, rich concepts which linger in the hungover hours of the early morning (notably on previous albums The Party and The Neon Skyline), Shauf offers an obscure and menacing tale of heartbreak on Norm, one doused in notions of paranoia, obsession, and ultimately rejection.
Throughout Norm, there is a befuddling shifting of perspectives and tones in Shauf’s sound, perhaps little surprise given his noted love of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive while writing the record. In its first half, we are introduced to a character, not named but potentially the titular Norm, who is portrayed as desperate and yearning for connection, backed by suitably sombre instrumentation. ‘Catch Your Eye’ paints the picture of a wretchedly lonely soul, stalking around the grocery store while pining for some sign of attention. ‘Telephone’ follows a similar trajectory, as our protagonist tries in vain to maintain communication with a loved one, the song ending with a final plea to “pick up your telephone”.
Norm is not named until halfway through the album, on the eponymous, jazz-inflected folk track in which his paranoia is laid bare. Tightly clutching the sofa, a voice tells him: “Stop these wicked ways and I will lead you to the promised land.” He is however seemingly unable to overcome his vices, with Shauf quickly killing Norm’s apparent success (‘Halloween Store’, ‘Sunset’) with the reality of his disturbing failure. Or is he? Is the character present in the first and last few tracks Norm, or someone else, watching wistfully from a distance?
Shauf’s mixing of perspectives is neatly epitomised by closer ‘All Of My Love’, which adopts the chorus of the opener (‘Wasted On You’) and redeploys it as something significantly more sedate. Little is what it seems on Norm, and Shauf shines in delivering a tale that enthrals and disturbs, without ever fully revealing its hand.
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