Canadian singer-songwriter Andy Shauf is known for creating rich, self-contained worlds within his music, from his 2016 breakthrough “The Party” to 2020’s “The Neon Skyline,” which both feature a cast of recurring characters and unfold over the course of one night. But in a press release describing his latest project, “Norm,” Shauf insists he sought out to make a “normal” album, steering clear of the high concepts that defined his previous work.
Respectfully, I call bullshit.
“Norm” is not just some ordinary album, and its lyrics sheet, sprinkled with special characters and selective capitalization (and a note that “the symbols” are intentional) is all the proof you need.
Upon first listen, “Norm” is a gorgeously produced collection of short folk-fiction. When given closer attention, the album unfurls into an anthology of dark, interconnected tales of loss, unrequited love and casual brushes with the divine.
On its surface, the shimmery album opener “Wasted on You” might sound like a sorrowful lament after a romantic split: “Was all my love wasted on you?” But listen closely and the verses tell a much deeper story, about a father-son relationship. “Maybe I’ll send You down / Give them a clue / Then they’ll kill You,” Shauf sings, assuming the perspective of God. The song is so slick and catchy it’s easy to miss that it’s about mourning a child and wondering if humanity is a lost cause.
On “Catch Your Eye” and “Telephone,” the album comes down to Earth, our narrator now a man yearning for human connection. “I wish you’d call me on the telephone” he sings over sparkling synths, with hopeless desperation. “I want to hear your voice reaching late into the night.”
It becomes apparent later on that we’re listening to the album’s titular character, Norm. But as he sings of playful pranks and light conversations, we start to wonder if Norm is heartbroken over a fizzled flame or if he’s on a sinister pursuit. He’s following you through the grocery store. He’s taking you outside the city and telling you how long he’s loved you for. He never wants to leave your side. With each turn, Norm shifts from down bad to just bad.
The omniscient “Paradise Cinema,” with eerie woodwinds and a guitar riff that crawls up your spine, follows Norm as he follows his love interest into a movie theater. “Three rows behind / And the lights are still not down / He sees you turning around / Slides down his seat, tumbles to the ground,” Shauf sings. Can either of our narrators can be trusted?
In Shauf’s world, God is a voyeur, a counselor, a flawed being with deep regret, revealing Norm with each subtle narrative twist.
On the title track, Norm has a revelation while drifting asleep on the sofa watching “The Price Is Right,” as God “speaks into his dream.” “Stop these wicked ways and I will lead you to the promised land,” God tells Norm when the TV goes silent, and you get the sense He derives some sort of pleasure out of spooking him.
Of course, “Norm” also showcases Shauf’s mastery of finding melodrama in the mundane. Take “Halloween Store,” which, in its first three verses, tells the story of a guy who gets in his car, realizes he forgot to lock the house, then locks himself out of the car. Shauf nails the punchline in his signature deadpan: “At least I locked one door.”
On “Daylight Dreaming” and “Long Throw,” we hear from the other side of Norm’s obsession, as our new narrator sings vaguely about an aforementioned blue car and a callback to “Telephone.” On the final track, all three narrators return to the album’s central question: “Was all of my love wasted on you?”
The trick of “Norm” is that it functions on two levels, never digging its heels in the narrative at the expense of its sound. “Wasted on You” and “Halloween Store,” the best two songs on the album, are grounded by acoustic guitar but both feature lush instrumental breaks and repeating hooks. Beginning as piano ballads, “Norm” and “Daylight Dreaming” are lifted by dreamlike digital orchestration.
On the gentle, almost languid “Don’t Let It Get to You,” God offers one last piece of guidance. But when Shauf sings, “All that time spent wondering / How things could be completely different / Don’t let it get to you,” it sounds almost as if the narrator is talking to Himself.