Disturbed, deeply flawed individuals who may or may not be capable of change are the lifeblood of many great novels. Such a character is the soul of the novelistic Norm (ANTI-), Andy Shauf’s eighth and most sophisticated album, sonically and narratively.
Norm is told from the perspective of three alternating narrators, including the title character, a loner-turned-stalker who ultimately drives the story down a dark road. As with many classic novels, Norm plays with the biblical theme of man battling God. You can hear God narrating certain songs, trying futilely to coax Norm from his evil ways.
At first, Norm sounds rather sweet—it’s easy to be captivated by the lovely melodies, the way he says, “I would live on the telephone/If I was listening/To you talk about your day.” But listen closer and you’ll hear Norm confess to calling his neighbor and saying nothing, just watching her through a window until she hangs up and closes her blinds.
Later, we’ll see Norm going unnoticed as he creeps behind trees, movie theaters and stores. Yet as the narrative shifts darker, God tries again to save Norm, giving him multiple chances for redemption.
“Any form of empathy we have for this character is from the way he is slowly introduced,” Shauf tells WW, referencing relatable human touches, like Norm’s clumsiness when he locks himself out of his car. “You see his flaws, but they’re introduced gently…the darkest parts come at the end of the record.”
Since the story is told from several points of view and isn’t necessarily delivered chronologically, Shauf wanted to be sure listeners would get just enough of the story to see that Norm is a creepy dude. He references George Saunders’ use of shifting narration in his stories, noting that he “probably picked up a little of that.”
“The hardest part of the story in general was trying to get it so that the three narrators work. And I don’t really know that I got there,” Shauf adds. “I wanted a lot of the story to happen in the listener’s head, but I wasn’t sure where the crucial details were missing.”
So he contacted friend and writer Nicholas Olson—and asked if he could provide lyrical feedback from a storyteller’s point of view. As story editor, Olson advised on details like how to use the pronoun “you” to effectively demonstrate which narrator is talking. “Or on the actual lyrics sheet I suggested using capitalization on certain pronouns to offer a little bit more of a hint in who the narrator was in that situation,” Olson says.
As for how much empathy listeners should feel toward Norm, Olson explains, “The album looks at love in broader ways than love is often considered in contemporary music.”
Feeling empathy toward a disturbed character like Norm is complicated. “I could maybe feel for him if his idea of love came from problematic upbringing regarding love,” says Olson.
Does Norm change by story’s end? “Well,” Shauf ponders. “what he wants, happens…and there was an easy way to end the story, but I didn’t want to do that….It took me a long time to figure out that I didn’t need to write the ending. Not exactly in the lyrics.”
The rest of the story’s details are answered in the silence of lyrical breaks, where the orchestral melodies inform the mood and intent. But the story is told subtly enough that if listeners don’t want to fuss with figuring it out, the listening experience is just as compelling.
Norm has a modern sophistication, thanks in part to Grammy Award-winning audio engineer Neal Pogue, who has worked with Outkast and Tyler the Creator and came onboard to mix the album. Shauf references his other albums as having a throwback vibe, but Norm was created not to invite listeners into another era, but into a dark and nuanced story that investigates power and love in all their complicated forms.
“We have all these amazing technologies,” Shauf says. “We can make a record sound like anything. So why am I trying to transport people into another decade? Why not just transport them elsewhere?”
SEE IT: Andy Shauf plays Revolution Hall, 1300 SE Stark St., 971-808-5094, revolutionhall.com. 8 pm Tuesday, March 7. $30. Minor seating in balcony only.