Andy Shauf’s The Neon Skyline is a concept record that tells a simple story about a night out spent with a friend at the bar (called the Neon Skyline) and running into an old flame after a bad breakup. The tone is appropriately conversational, even casual, as the narrator mulls his past behaviors and current feelings. He covers up his pain with glib humor aided by strummed guitar licks that belie the depth of his emotional stress. The result is introspective without being maudlin. The melodrama becomes just another bar story in the best sense—and in this case, it all happens at a bar.
There’s a reason people go out to be with others when staying home is more comfortable and affordable. The narrator’s need for company makes sense. And who doesn’t understand the mix of sensations one feels when unexpectedly running into someone from the past who once meant so much but now is no longer a part of one’s life? Shauf may be no Sinatra (the most notable saloon singer) vocally. Still, he has a likable voice that weaves in and out of various melodic tempos in a warm tenor voice to express his ever-changing mental states. He doesn’t take things to extremes. Shauf reminisces about the bad as well as the good with the fuzziness of alcohol cushioning the blows of memory. He recalls his attempts at humor and at being serious with equal sincerity in a self-deprecating and endearing way.
“Why do I do the things I do” he sings on the instrumentally textured “Thing I Do” as the horns well-up to express his feelings of self-blame and self-pity. He understands what’s past is past. He may wish he had acted differently, and Shauf berates himself for what he did or didn’t do to keep the relationship on track, but he’s not melodramatic about it. Thinking about what happened is bittersweet.
This informality of his reflections offers its own rewards. When he sings that maybe he should “Try Again”, he understands that one accidental meeting is not going to alter anything. He may miss his old girlfriend and feel gut-punched after running into her at the bar, but he knows the feeling isn’t mutual. When he tries to hold his ex’s hand as they leave for another venue, she brushes him off. The narrator realizes she’s moved on. And he realizes he’s has changed. Life continues even if it doesn’t necessarily progress, and that’s okay.
Shauf wrote these songs on the guitar, and his generally sparse musical accompaniments reinforce the intimacy of sentiments. Using minimal detail, the individual songs work both separately and as chapters of a larger piece. Shauf performed, arranged, and produced every song on The Neon Skyline. Thus, there is a unity to the whole affair—and a tenderness. The songs recreate the epiphany the narrator reaches at the end of the night. It’s somewhere between a smile and a sigh at the realization of what’s left when love is over. There may always be a spark inside. Like the bar, the heart provides a small light that’s part of a grander picture and a place to view the outside world.