TENDER LOVING EMPIRE Andy Shauf’s lastest album presents listeners with poetic lyricism, but at the same time, this beauty often takes a dark turn.
TENDER LOVING EMPIRE
Andy Shauf’s latest album presents listeners with poetic lyricism, but at the same time, this beauty often takes a dark turn.

★★★★☆

Andy Shauf’s latest release is the perfect record for brooding away the last days of winter. Its muted guitars and gloomy vocals conjure up overcast days, and its simultaneously profound and unsettling lyrics provide the perfect soundtrack for that all-too-familiar existential college crisis.

“The Bearer of Bad News” opens with “Hometown Hero,” an ambling folk song with rambling, narrative lyrics that scan like a Springsteen ballad. The upbeat rhythm and spunky heroism of Shauf’s protagonist create a positive mood, but the lyrics’ subtly hide darker content.

This vaguely unsettled feeling continues into “Drink My Rivers.” Its loopy brass is disorienting, while the verses and chorus —“it’s not as bad as it seems” — bring to mind someone who doesn’t want people to think there’s anything wrong. There’s a definite air of “no really, I’m fine” throughout this track, but it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what is so unsettling about it.

These uncanny tracks finally transition to outright depressing with “I’m Not Falling Asleep.” The emotional descent reaches its somber destination vaguely reminiscent of Morrissey’s soul-crushing cynicism. If the Smiths were a folk band, they might have produced a song like this. The melancholy march of piano and drums paired with the spacey doubled vocals and pining lyrics sink listeners further into Shauf’s dark but undeniably artistic mood music.

This brooding mood persists through most the album. At times it takes on an almost back-woods feel, since most of the songs seem to take place in small farming towns where everyone has a rifle and winters can get dark, cold and very isolated. Still, this darkness takes on a poetic dignity with beautiful lines like “the winter would roll past the boarded windows into our souls and shake our weary bones.”

For people tired of the formulaic pop world, Shauf’s rejection of structure should come as a welcome relief. Instead of falling apart without a rigid verse to chorus to bridge template to follow, his folk songs flourish organically. Narratives like “Wendell Walker” unravel as seamlessly as if Shauf is telling a story off the top of his head.

Shauf has clearly put a lot of thought into the writing and presentation of these songs, even though they have this spontaneous feel. “The Man On Stage” gets an interesting start with a sound almost like that of an orchestra tuning if the orchestra were drunk and plugged into distorted amplifiers which feeds right into the story of a possibly inebriated musician. “I am the man on stage singing you favorites songs / making up a few of the words as I go along.”

Musically, Shauf has carved out a folk niche for himself, but at times he parallels some indie artists. “You’re Out Wasting” has the vocals and chill vibe of the Shins, while “Lick Your Wounds” feels almost like a Dr. Dog track. That second track offers a temporary respite from the winter blues of the album, with bright, staccato piano and easygoing vocals a la “Distant Light.”

From there, the mood gets dark again, but in a unique way. “Jerry Was a Clerk” gives Shauf’s typical folk style a hip-hop spin. The instrumentation remains the same, but the rhythm and almost rapped vocals change up the feel as Shauf delivers another dark story with an expertly orchestrated twist at the end.

The biggest twist of all comes with the final track. “Dear Helen” starts out sad and sweet, with the lyrics from the point of view of an old farmer writing to his lost love: “I’m just a tired old man just waiting to join you.” The simple piano backdrop is beautiful and makes the song into a bit of a tear-jerker. But as the song goes on it gets darker, and it becomes apparent that the farmer has killed someone — one of the kids from “Jerry Was a Clerk.” The last thing you hear is his anguished “I don’t know how they feel about us accidental killers / I don’t know how they feel about us tired old murdering men.”

This album is full of poetry, from the artsy, letter-style testimonial found on the inside cover of the CD to the heartbreaking narrative of the final track. But, though the language is beautiful, the songs themselves are not for the faint of heart; some of the narratives have dark twists that can be disturbing. If the darkness doesn’t faze you, though, this album is fantastic musically. The tension in the music perfectly mirrors the tension in the masterful lyrics, and the flow from start to finish works really well.

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