Welcome to Concept Albums Collated. In this series, we try our best to weave together a track by track narrative from an album that has been described by an artist as a concept album – no matter how loose the story-line is. By attempting to use the artist’s lyrics to piece together a story from beginning to end, examining different characters and emphasizing major themes, we attempt to turn concept to cohesion to present the narrative intended by the author(s). Think of it as a complimentary walkthrough paired well with the album in question, a set of headphones and a cup of coffee.
The date was November 9, 2016. Andy Shauf, who had recently made the move from his hometown of Regina, Saskatchewan to Toronto, Ontario was sitting in a bar talking to a reporter from NOW Magazine. Throughout the whole world, there was a strange feeling in the air on this particular evening. It was the night after Donald Trump won the U.S election, an event that created fault lines throughout America as well as the wider world. An event that was perhaps the most divisive of the 21st century, so far. As he sat and drank his Old Style Pilsner (a favorite among people from Saskatchewan, even though this Toronto author has always thought of it as “the cheap beer offered at the Hard Luck Bar”) Shauf solemnly pondered that “sometimes I think there’s so much going wrong that I should try to make something that contributes to good somehow”. The bar that set the scene for this meeting was the Skyline Restaurant in Toronto’s Parkdale neighborhood.
A day and night look at the Skyline Restaurant. Source: Greg’s Southern Ontario on Flickr
Now, three years later, the Skyline Restaurant has set the scene for another significant moment in Andy Shauf’s life. His sixth full length album The Neon Skyline, is a concept album based on a night spent in this seminal Parkdale dive. It concerns a nameless protagonist (who we will call The Narrator) going to the Skyline with an ex-girlfriend on his mind and the faint hope of seeing her there. It touches on themes of nostalgia diluting memory, life in stagnation without change and surface level relationships without a deeper emotional connection. Luckily for our purposes, the narrative of the album is written consecutively and clearly which doesn’t make for much reaches to discern what the story is. Without further ado, let’s introduce the characters…
Andy Shauf sitting in the Skyline. Credit: Colin Medley.
The Narrator: Perhaps in his late 20s or early 30s, The Narrator has hit a point of his stagnation in his life where everything seems the same. He is frequently intoxicated by the drug of nostalgia and tonight – he is high as a kite. He’s completely focused on the memories of his ex-girlfriend, Judy, and romanticizes his past experiences with her. Tonight, The Narrator gets a peek beyond the rim of his rose colored glasses.
Charlie: The happy-go-lucky best friend of The Narrator, Charlie is carefree and comfortable with his state of affairs – in stark contrast to The Narrator. He holds a penchant for wine and wit.
Claire: Mutual friend of Charlie and The Narrator, Claire’s lifestyle was perhaps more similar to the two of them once upon a time but tonight, she arrives at the bar with familial baggage in tow – luggage that the two guys are too dumbfounded to help unload.
Rose: Like a radio tower or a bridge, bartender Rose is a fixture of the Skyline. She’s quick with a joke. Or a fix of a drink you haven’t thought to order yet.
Judy: Ex-girlfriend who exists solely as a shiny polished trophy in the mind of The Narrator, wiped clean of dust, dents and scratches…
TRACK 1: THE NEON SKYLINE
Enter The Narrator in an apartment that seems less than ideal. Food is not an abundance within its walls, as he declares I looked in my fridge, it was a dark scene so I buttered some bread. He decides to spend the night at a bar he always used to go to with his ex-girlfriend, Judy (who affectionately referred to it as our disease) but calls on his friend Charlie for some company. Enter Charlie, who agrees to meet him at the bar, declaring that he wouldn’t mind holding a lighter head tonight. This proves to be something that The Narrator will be unable to do. The two men arrive at the Neon Skyline. Enter bartender Rose, who sets down The Narrator’s usual cold can (it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine it’s a Pilsner, on special via the low rate of Toronto consumption) and laughs as Charlie orders a Merlot. The chorus rings out Oh, I’m just fine, I’m wasting time, sometimes there’s no better feeling than that. Except he wasn’t fine. The new diagnosis of the Judy branded disease is that The Narrator is now the sole party infected. This disease takes the form of blissful nostalgia, influenced by the Neon Skyline – their previous haunt. Where even the bartender’s name is synonymous with the color of glasses necessary to erase the difficulties of the past, that sit firmly on the nose of The Narrator.
TRACK 2: WHERE ARE YOU JUDY
The forlorn woodwind jazz riff that begins this song is the perfect beginning to a series of questions about Judy that The Narrator poses in his mind. As the title suggests, he wonders where Judy is tonight. If I saw her, what would I say? Do I pretend that I know all the sh*t I did? And I know how I could fix it? Could Judy and I start over? In an ironic twist that screams “your next stop – The Twilight Zone”, Charlie declares “Did you know Judy’s back in town?” Now, The Narrator’s mind is consumed by Judy. He realizes that his questions could beget answers by the end of the night. However, it is important to note here that The Narrator seems conscious of the red flags and issues bubbling under the surface of memory that ended the relationship. Time heals all wounds, but it doesn’t always offer fixes to the problems that caused them.
TRACK 3: CLOVE CIGARETTE
In this minor chord folk song, The Narrator is in a daze of sweet yet surface level memories of Judy. Everything in the bar serves as reminders of Judy. The table, the chairs, the door and smoke from a cigarette all inspire memories of Judy in a summer soaked malaise. Her summer hair, skin and dress all exist as surface level memories. There are no thoughts of the deeper emotional feelings that must have occurred to render the summer in question his last with Judy. Remarking about the song (and perhaps about romanticized memory) Shauf explained “for me, smelling a clove cigarette always takes me back to a really specific time in my life when I was living in Regina and trying to quit cigarettes by smoking clove cigarettes—which were delicious, and really bad for you.”
The chairs and tables which are red, not green in real life. Source: Greg’s Southern Ontario on Flickr.
TRACK 4: THIRTEEN HOURS
Here at last, a less than desirable moment in the relationship comes to light in the form of a story about a trip that The Narrator took with Judy. This seemingly occurs towards the end of their relationship as downward cascading clarinet notes symbolize the downward spiral of the couple. After a restless thirteen hour flight, the couple gets home stressed and burnt out. A silver lining appears in the idea that they will soon be home and can bask in the comfort of their own bed. However, the bickering that could have defined a significant portion of the trip continues as Judy berates The Narrator for not leaving enough of a tip for the cab driver who drove them home from the airport. While walking back into the street to give the cab driver more money, Judy is struck by a drunk driver, which results in one broken hand, two bruised ribs, and one hospital gown. Instead of comforting each other, the couple blames each other for the disaster. The couple never gets home in the way they imagined and hope for relief is gone. A simple mistake, that would prove fatal later on.
TRACK 5: THINGS I DO
The end of the relationship revealed in this fabulous piece of baroque pop. With the relationship in a dismal state, The Narrator makes a last ditch romantic effort to save or inspire some growth in the relationship. This takes the form of The Narrator surprising Judy by coming home early from work. Upon walking in the door, he finds out that the relationship is too far gone. Enter another man, who Judy is having an affair with. The Narrator realizes that his worst fears are confirmed as he muses to himself – why do I do, the things I do, when I know I am losing you? Just like the trip in THIRTEEN HOURS, The Narrator never gets home in the way he imagined and hope for relief is gone.
TRACK 6: LIVING ROOM
We now journey to the present time at the Neon Skyline. Enter mutual friend Claire. Expecting Claire to offer a light-hearted anecdote to lighten the mood, both Charlie and The Narrator are surprised by an anxiety inducing story (set to fast picked acoustic chords) of familial trauma instead. Claire talks about how when she was a girl, she drew a picture to garner attention from her father. He responded to this coldly, telling her to show it to her mother instead. She admits that her son came home today with a picture for her in hand and similar to the way her father behaved, she waived him off and told him that she would look at it later. The Narrator and Charlie are bewildered and have nothing to say. The Narrator declares Claire walked away and Charlie looked at me with wide eyes. Like we had accidentally walked into some stranger’s living room. This dynamic between the characters displays the theme of stagnation. Perhaps once upon a time, Claire shared the carefree life of The Narrator and Charlie, but she has since grown and matured. Despite her scars, she has found a way to move on. Something that The Narrator cannot relate to.
TRACK 7: DUST KIDS
Charlie tells a story about a group of children that supposedly had been reincarnated and could recall their past lives. The Narrator declares sarcastically that he’ll take another life. Although ridiculous, he wonders if he and Judy could have a chance in a possible next life. This shows a complete ignorance from The Narrator on the circumstances that doomed the relationship, wishing for a new life to preserve the superficial comforts of the relationship while ignoring the personality conflicts that could still be the same (even if you had a new body and new life). This superficial comforts element is cemented by a dream recalled by The Narrator that he had while lying next to Judy where he gets shot and killed in a shopping mall. This could possibly symbolize a fatal attraction to the surface level aesthetics of the relationship or an inability to stop window shopping in the past.
TRACK 8: THE MOON
In which Charlie finally gets fed up with The Narrator and begins the track by asking “are you going to mope around all night”. Charlie suggests hitting the town and going to the bar around the corner where it’s always dark. Through my Toronto bar knowledge (and some help from Google Maps), I think their new destination could be the “Shameful Tiki Room”. By photos of the interior, we can see that it is quite dark inside. “Shameful” is a valid adjective for The Narrator’s actions to follow. Enter. Judy. Right as they are leaving the Skyline, Judy walks into the bar. It is almost serendipitous that they don’t have a moment to sit in the green booths or inhale the clove cigarettes together. Moments seemingly trapped in the past, unable to be recovered. They make their way out of the bar and suddenly Judy and The Narrator are laughing and joking like old times. Now fully consumed as the nostalgia comes full circle, The Narrator reaches for Judy’s hand. She pulls it away as she says “You know it can’t be like that“. Reality. Hits.
The Shameful Tiki Room. Source: Curiocity Toronto
TRACK 9: TRY AGAIN
But it doesn’t hit hard enough, as The Narrator is still lost in the nostalgic drunken stupor of the moment – as a figure holding a weight from his past arrives in his present. He smiles at her for way too long and takes her being friendly and charming for flirting. He keeps mistaking her anecdotes for something more sincere. Judy teases The Narrator, and he longs for something more. A key example of this is found in the chorus of the song. Judy jokingly does a British accent to him and he tries to do it back but fails. She then says come on baby, try again and The Narrator overthinks this phrase as indicative of trying out a relationship again. However, reality hits in the form of The Narrator spotting Judy talking to a male friend and feeling the familiar sting of jealousy and frustration (How many years could there be to catch up on?) as toxic elements of the relationship FINALLY begin to break through the nostalgic fold as The Narrator clutches his drink and makes a silent toast to the things that I do and don’t miss. Reality. Hits. For real this time. Side note, Charlie orders wine for the second time. Perhaps this is a symbol of emotional maturity, or I’m reading too much into this and he’s just not a beer guy.
TRACK 10: FIRE TRUCK
As the title suggests, a fire truck siren rings out and it reminds The Narrator of a time during the relationship when he was up until 4 AM waiting for Judy to get home. Frustrated, jealous and paranoid, The Narrator witnesses a fire truck arrive at the scene of a neighbor’s house that is on fire. The Narrator recalls his thoughts while staring at his neighbors watching their house burn to the ground: and for some reason, I remember that feeling being almost jealousy for a new beginning. Here finally, the Narrator realizes that he hasn’t focused on the new beginning he was given at the end of the relationship. His nostalgia is stripped away as the sun-kissed memories of summer tidings with Judy fade to his present reality where he is still standing in the ashes of the relationship – with the new beginning still on the horizon. He brings up the fire truck memory to Judy (to perhaps confide in the only other person who shares it) and she admonishes him for bringing it up and instead, grabs his hand to dance to her favorite song. As hammer on/pull off guitar notes and “doo doo doos” ring out, the former couple starts to dance while Rome burns. Except the fire has been out for a while and the city can be rebuilt, The Narrator finally realizes.
TRACK 11: CHANGER
Although a lovely track with reverb soaked guitar passages and clarinet accents, Shauf admits that this song is “loose lyrically” and doesn’t mention any of the characters or the plotline of the Judy story. This track kind of works as an epilogue, with the conclusion of the story being the fire truck realization. A cryptic song, where maybe Shauf speaks to the listener directly – telling us all to become a “changer” in one way or another. To make a concrete effort to break out of stagnation in a situation where we may feel hopeless or stuck.
Credit: Colin Medley.
In conclusion, The Neon Skyline showcases Andy Shauf’s talent for storytelling through a concrete narrative rife with symbolism and relatable characters. Shauf is well on his way to becoming Canada’s 21st century Paul Simon, a musician who he admits influenced the album. Andy Shauf accomplished his goal set out in the Skyline three years ago. He made an album that can do “something that contributes to good somehow”. Plenty of people deal with the afflictions held by The Narrator such as romanticizing the past and difficulties moving on from an undesirable state. As Shauf says at the end of this opus, we all can become changers. Put this album on and take a seat in one of the green booths of the Neon Skyline, where Rose knows exactly the fix you need.
Andy Shauf performs at The Danforth Music Hall in Toronto on April 23 and 24. Stream the album below: