If you need any proof that, in spite of apparent evidence, the world is slowly getting better, listen to Andy Shauf’s “The Party”. Forty years ago, a musician with Andy’s way of doing things and with his sensitivity would’ve probably gone almost completely unheard. Worse things would’ve likely been in the cards. I’m thinking Nick Drake here. Now, “The Party” exists, and hopefully many other records will follow from the stunning poetic and musical font that is Andy Shauf.
It’s been a couple of months now, and I still can’t forgive myself for not including “The Party” on the AD best albums of 2016 list. Because it simply is. It’s the best pop has ever had to offer to me, at least in terms of honesty, intricacy and poetry. It’s less likely to make you want to dance, but it doesn’t mean the songs don’t have excellent grooves. In fact, the awe this music incites in me is mostly due to the perfect blend of upbeat tunes and heartrending lyrics throughout the entire record. It’s even more mind-blowing when you consider that Andy recorded the whole thing on his own, save for the string arrangements contributed by Colin Nealis.
RELEASE DATE: 20 May 2016 LABEL: Self-released
The premise is simple: a house party, where different guests get to speak in each of the songs. The situations and emotional tribulations described are relatable and simple, by which I mean there’s nowhere to hide, no ambiguity to depend on. Andy weaves a tragedy of the banal throughout the whole record. Even while letting several characters speak, his own incisive, subtly bitter mind permeates the background, turning the album into what is essentially a symphony of the disappointed, a gentle portrait of missed chances, failed attempts and small-town pettiness. Whenever a character expresses a hope for something beautiful, or a fear of something painful (anything as long as it’s remotely meaningful), Andy the director brings it all into an unflinching, minor perspective, where things simply go on, being less than they seem. As one of the characters puts it, “oh from the sky a brilliant light will dissolve us all”. Except “light” isn’t the key word there – “dissolve” is.
There’s a stunning contrast here, and it creates a deeply theatrical tension, where characters are fleshed out in minutes, only to fade out right away, into the next song. “The Party” starts functioning almost as a script. You can imagine every scene taking place, and the more you listen, the more you see the whole drama playing out at once, the more you want to precisely identify each voice musing in the songs, each connection. Under the gorgeous, painstaking veneer of ‘70s styled fun music, lies a deeply human tangle of stories, one of the sharpest testaments to the “unbearable lightness of being” I have ever heard. None of this slowly revolving interaction between the voices in each of the songs ends up meaning anything – not even one of the characters’ deaths. All “The Party” is, is a ticking clock, until enough cigarettes are smoked and all the alcohol is gone…
…and then there’s the final song, which I will not hesitate to call a masterpiece. “Martha Sways” is maybe the only nugget of hope for a happy end that Andy leaves in this record, but it’s all the more powerful and uplifting for it. This is the song that made me think of Nick Drake when I listened to “The Party”, a glimpse of a way out, sketched in splendid poetry and bringing the album together flawlessly. It’s as though throughout the experience you’re given the chance to “slowly let your heart break”, to paraphrase another character, only to be soothed with the most generous, deeply loving musical offering I’ve heard all year last year. “Martha Sways” is the one song on the album in which things are clearly more than they seem, and that contrast just pulled the carpet from under my feet when I first heard it. It feels as though Andy spent nine songs painstakingly setting up a sad bastard episode in the listener, just so he could offer breathtaking bliss in the tenth. I love this album so much for it, that I actually feel grateful it exists, song by song, but especially in terms of overarching structure.
I could talk about “The Party” for hours, and I have, to everyone who would listen (and some who wouldn’t). The production is not only excellent, it’s basically a musicological study in the “super sounds of the ‘70s”. The composition is surprising in its marriage of simplicity and sophistication. Andy is an amazing instrumentalist, and demonstrates great restraint and patience, and the whole record feels exquisitely deliberate because of it. However, the mood is what shines brightest in the whole ensemble. In short, this is a true gem of a record, and it deserves every accolade I can conjure. Enjoy!