The fact of storytelling hints at a fundamental human unease, hints at human imperfection. Where there is perfection there is no story to tell.
When it comes to lyric writing there are, as the saying goes, many ways to skin a cat. Some go political, others poetic, some dress up their lyrics in metaphor, others just seem to babble complete nonsensical rubbish, yes we’re looking at you Little “Bop bopa-a-lu a whop bam boo Tutti frutti, au- rutti” Richard and you can tell Adele to stop setting fire to the rain while you’re at it because that just wouldn’t work!
However, one of the oldest and most oft repeated methods of lyrics is to take the route of the raconteur and tell us a story. Being modern world dwellers, we often now think of stories and literature as interchangeable; but of course we’ve been conveying events far longer that we’ve been writing them down, and ever since some clever clogs went and invented music we’ve been using that as one of our favourite methods of telling tales. Folk music in particular has been used as a way to pass stories on from person to person, long before we began recording music, and that influence remains a strong factor in songwriting within more modern folk musicians. The lineage that goes from Woody Guthrie, through Bob Dylan and to pretty much every songwriter going, has produced some of the finest story-tellers around.
It’s a tradition that’s alive and well; even in the internet age when music can’t hope to spread the word as quickly as social-media, many songwriters are still producing wonderfully narrative tales. Mark Kozelek is a master, his lyrics less stories and more diary entries, streams of consciousness, interspersed with the tales of a varied cast of characters he’s met along the way. Sufjan Stevens has always been a raconteur of the highest quality, whether it’s tales of his own life, as on this years Carrie & Lowell, or historical figures as part of his historical States project, he has a way of emoting stories and making you want to know what happens to the figures he introduces along the way.
There’s plenty of fine examples of musical raconteuring, from the rambling monologues of Jeffrey Lewis, the murder-ballads of Nick Cave and recently, Hurray For The Riff Raff, or the just plain heartbreakingly autobiographical ilk of Eels. Whatever method people use to tell their story, or the story of others, the tradition of storytelling through song seems to be alive and well.
Andy Shauf is a solo artist in the truest sense, playing and arranging the entirety of his music.
The heir apparent to Elliot Smith’s crown as the master of emotive and intimate song-writing. Andy largely wrote his debut album on his grandfather’s acoustic guitar, and accompanies it with a subtle pallet of gently metronomic drums, perfectly judged splashes of piano, and a decent amount of surprisingly pleasant Clarinet. We’ve never been huge fans of the instrument, but Andy uses his, a Christmas present from his family, to add a warm, smoky sway to proceedings that transports him from the isolation of snowy Canada to the bars of New Orleans, perhaps following the same path Timber Timbre trod with saxophones on the excellent Hot Dreams.
Andy is from Regina, the capital city of the Saskatchewan province in Canada. Regina is home to Canada’s oldest continuously performing orchestra, which conjures up the image of a rather elderly man who’s been playing the tuba for ninety years without a break. Famous Regina residents include Naked Gun and Airplane star Leslie Nielsen, professional wrestler Brock Lesnar and Blues guitarist Colin James.
Four years of writing and one year in his make shift studio in his parents basement has resulted in his debut album. The Bearer Of Bad News will finally see the light of day when it’s released by Portland based label Tender Loving Empire on June 8th.
For a debut album, The Bearer Of Bad News is a frighteningly accomplished piece of work. Musically, it would sit neatly alongside the likes of Jonathan Wilson, Hiss Golden Messenger, or Hurray For The Riff Raff as modern day masters of the Americana sound. However, whether it’s Andy’s snowy Canadian routes or just his outlook on life, it’s a noticeably colder affair. His tales have a sense of darkness, whether he’s discussing heartbreak, spinning one of the three murder ballads that appear on the album, or even revelling in small town heroism, Andy’s tales always seem to possess a dark side, marking him out as lyricist in the lineage of Bonnie “Prince” Billy, or countryman Leonard Cohen.
Perhaps unsurprisingly from a man who’s grown up in a region of Canada that regularly reaches twenty degrees below zero in winter, isolation is a key theme of the album; particularly evident on the entirely heartbreaking Covered In Dust, where over a downbeat twanging guitar, interspersed with morose cello embellishments, Andy paints us a picture of his own death-bed noting “I will die a poor man, covered in dust, dreaming of you”. Whilst on the beautifully produced Lick Your Wounds he suggests he will, “fall in love with my own loneliness” and on the emotive piano led I’m Not Falling Asleep he pleads for company asking an unidentified other to, “please stay a while, I’m not falling asleep.”
Wendell Walker is a powerfully dark tale of adultery and betrayal with a horrific ending that we’ll leave you discover yourself; it’s highly reminiscent of Mark Kozelek and Jimmy LaValle‘s You Missed My Heart. The album ends with two entwined tales: Jerry Was A Clerk and My Dear Helen, which offer different takes on the same tragic tale of a break in gone wrong, and accidental killing, whilst My Dear Helen is particularly wonderful; a piano ballad with the warmth of Jonathan Wilson, which entirely belies the songs dark lyrical undercurrent.
Perhaps our favourite moment though is the excellent The Man On Stage. Starting with loops of feedback; it resolves into a mellow guitar accompanied by some gentle drums, as Andy labels himself as, “the man on stage slurring your favourite songs, making up a few words as I go along” as if he’s been doing this for years, the source of his mallaise gradually unfurls once the chorus, oddly upbeat, in tempo at least, and recalling the excellent Jacob Golden, see him repeats the lyric, “I am not a poet I’m a broken heart”. There’s a beautiful simplicity to the way he writes, never more so than on this particular track.
Well perhaps you’ve guessed by now, but this album isn’t exactly a joyous affair; it’s moody, downbeat, even at times a bit miserable. Exactly how we like it basically, but it’s probably not for everyone.
The Bearer Of Bad News is out June 8th on Tender Loving Empire. Andy Shauf plays End Of The Road festival.