Listening to Andy Shauf's third studio album, The Party, a thought comes to mind: "Humans are such painfully funny, funnily painful creatures, aren't they?"
Zooming in on the smorgasbord of characters at a typical social gathering, the Canadian from small- town Saskatchewan has a razor-sharp eye for the intricacies of the games people play, yet delivers his anthropological observations in a most delicate, pleasing manner.
Belying exquisitely orchestrated arrangements beats a vulnerable heart.
If he were a film-maker, he would be someone like Whit Stillman with his gently acerbic portrayals of youthful foibles through generations, or Robert Altman, with his rotating circus of folk trying to unravel one another.
Alexander All Alone is the saddest, prettiest, most unexpected track you'd hear all year. Shauf gets into the mind of a lonely guest who has suddenly dropped dead after swearing off smoking.
"Hell is found inside of me/and nothing else will set me free/if hell is found inside of me/then open me up and spill me out," is the interior monologue sung in the singer's lucid, slightly nasal croon.
THE PARTY/ANDY SHAUF
Such is the cruelty of life's random happenstances, wrapped up in a groovy package of alternating plinks of a piano and an insistent bass groove.
You laugh too, or cry and laugh at the poor bloke/girl in Early To The Party. "Overdressed and underprepared/standing in the kitchen, stressing out the host," Shauf sings under his breath, as the strings hover like flies over lovely ivories. It sounds like a Burt Bacharach lounge doozie gone slightly askew, trying to act cool in a room dressed up for a Monocle photo shoot.
Contrast this fellow with the carefree lass who dances on her own in Eyes Of Them All. "I could fall for you/I could fall for you," sings Shauf, probably in the persona of a shyer guest, in a mid-tempo dance ditty illumed with bright synths and toe-tapping thumps.
It's such clandestine, funny-sad moments that distinguish Shauf from his peers who likewise ply the 1970s-styled singer-songwriter mode - the more showy Father John Misty or the lovelorn, navel- gazing Tobias Jesso Jr.
You don't expect, for instance, such a confessional as To You, where a friend tries to communicate an attraction beyond mere friendship.
Shauf nails the tumultuous swing of emotions, however timorous. "It's just that sometimes when I'm by your side/It feels so right… that sounded wrong/man I'm just high," he sings almost conspiratorially, the pace switching between softly plunked piano and a hastened keyboard.
It's this seeming easiness, an unobtrusive sleight of hand that sums up the mastery of the musician. Like the titular character in the opening track The Magician, Shauf comes clean over cascading piano, seductive strings and chirpy clarinets: "Do you find it gets a little easier/each time you make it disappear?"
You smile, say no, and try to suppress the nerves.