With the release of “Spanish on the Beach” out of nowhere on a random Wednesday earlier this month—while, unbeknownst to most of us, a whole new record was waiting in the wings—listeners were reintroduced to Andy Shauf’s magnetic, rich mindset with a cut about hypothetical marriage and returning from a trip worse off than when you booked it. “On the last day, we were there / You said you wished we could stay / Boarded the plane and everything / Changed,” he sings on the track, in his sticky Canadian tenor so tight-lipped, it whistles.
As essential to indie folk as George Saunders is to short-story collections for the better part of a decade, Shauf, ever the Saskatchewanian balladeer, always understands the assignment. After a run of self-releases and cycles with Hopeless Records and Tender Loving Empire/Party Damage, Shauf burst onto the scene for good with ANTI- in 2016 by way of The Party, a wrought, honest portrait of people-watching and a lesson in the short distance between entertainment and melancholia. Whether it was watching a hypnotist fail miserably during “The Magician” or witnessing a beautiful woman dancing for a crowd on “Eyes of Them All,” Shauf subtly flexed his gift for storytelling—filling the record with too many people, but striking a generous, Lincoln in the Bardo-like balance between character depth and quantity within the heavy macrocosm he was responsible for.
As did The Party, 2019’s The Neon Skyline—a concept album as ambitious as its predecessor, tackling alcoholism, bar culture and socially anxious interactions so relatable they make you squirm—takes place over one night, as Shauf’s narrator learns that his ex has come back to town and we watch him spiral through hours of grief and flashbacks. Fan-favorite “Where Are You Judy” introduced us to the narrator’s former beloved, while tracks like “Thirteen Hours” and “Try Again” painstakingly depicted the softer consequences of breaking up, like the weight of single facial expressions and joking about missing a coat, but not the person wearing it. Shauf wrote and recorded dozens of tracks for Skyline, but left ones not hellbent on a so-called “light-headedness” on the cutting room floor. The leftovers are not in the trash, though. Instead, Dylanesque in his execution, Shauf gave these “outtakes” their own record, and they end up being just as good, if not better, than the one from which they were omitted. Reminiscent of “Up to Me,” left off Blood on the Tracks, or “Abandoned Love,” ditto Desire, Shauf fashions stunning, unforgettable side-quests of these two forgettable people, our nameless narrator and the immortal Judy, and turns their entire relationship into a concise, cinematic 27-minute tale—leaving no room for mistakes and emerging with Wilds, a delicate and unassuming record about accepting separation before fully letting go.
Naturally, the Shauf cinematic universe tends to grow with each record, something especially evident on Skyline. But on so much of Wilds, it’s only the narrator and Judy, which allows Shauf to get as far into the heads of these characters as he wants, opening the door for him to reach backwards into the breakage and show us the ugly, close-to-home woes of the relationship. And he does it with patience and resonance, as his narrator ditches rose-colored glasses in favor of accountability. Between the lottery-themed opener (“Judy [Wilds]”) and the awkward, first post-breakup interaction closer (“Jeremy’s Wedding [Wilds]”), there is as much realistic humor and fantasy here as there are “so true” moments of fatalistic relatability. On album centerpiece “Television Blue,” we get a story of spontaneity, in which the narrator and Judy leave a sand- and wind-beaten oceanside for the fluorescent lights of a motel. “Judy takes a sip, says ‘I remember we stole bug spray. Out of money, blue motel, you told / Me to go to hell,’” Shauf cheekily utters. But on the hit-and-run odyssey “Jaywalker,” he sings of retrospect, detailing that “It’s been a few years, you can barely / Recall why the things that you said have / You feeling so small.”
Known for his sometimes lovey-dovey, easy-going folk guitar instrumentals that swell into full-band mirages, Shauf drinks in a stripped-down sound on Wilds—especially evident on “Green Glass,” where doses of wallowing electric guitar enter and exit fast, but precisely in place. There’s a spare drum fill here and there, but the focus is always on Shauf’s lyricism, especially his quips, like “One bad attitude stomping out a smile / Breathing cigarette smoke like a grown-up child / One goes unspoken, the other won’t kill” on “Wicked and Wild,” or “It was so nice / I thought the bridesmaids looked beautiful” on “Jeremy’s Wedding (Wilds).”
Wilds stretches over months, even years, of domestic heartbreak. “We were in an argument / It felt like the front door blew open, to / Me anyways / She said, ‘I think I should go’ and I / Haven’t seen her since that afternoon,” Shauf sings on “Believe Me,” in that familiar hum of self-deprecation and romantic uncertainty lingering around every corner on his records. But after churning out tonight’s escapades on The Party and Skyline, the Canadian singer/songwriter expands this record’s world into a tomorrow. So many of Shauf’s stories are written post-destruction, but Wilds has prelude-like undertones, serving as an epigraph before some great, familiar ending. When we meet up with the narrator at the beginning of Skyline, the listener becomes privy to his breakup with Judy. On Wilds, Shauf tricks us into becoming invested in these insignificant characters, just two specks of dust rehashing the same fights and same one-sided “I love yous,” by giving them hearts similar to our own.
If The Neon Skyline was Shauf’s opus, à la his Breaking Bad, then Wilds is his Better Call Saul: a companion guide carrying a much richer self-interrogation and presentation. Wilds is all killer and no filler, not taking itself all that seriously—instead, it opens up and gives us honest glimpses into how a relationship came together and failed, without forgetting to showcase the parts where hopeful sparks just never really had it in them to turn aflame in the first place.
Matt Mitchell is a writer living in Columbus, Ohio. His writing can be found now, or soon, in Pitchfork, Bandcamp, Paste, LitHub and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @matt_mitchell48.