Sculptor, the new release from Brooklyn-based Australian duo Luluc (Steve Hassett and Zoe Randell), comes somewhat burdened with expectation. Though they never broke into the mainstream – if such a thing even exists in 2018 – Luluc’s last album Passerby (2014) received a lot of good buzz from critics and musicians alike.
On top of that, Sculptor also has an impressive list of guest stars. The National’s singer Matt Berninger raved about Passerby, and his bandmate Aaron Dessner features on two tracks here. ‘Genius‘ boasts a guest appearance by fellow Aussie Jim White on the drums, and Dinosaur Jr guitarist J. Mascis features on ‘Me and Jasper‘.
All this gives Sculptora lot to live up to. Sadly, the album doesn’t really manage it. It’s fine enough on its own terms, sure. It’s even interesting at points. But it just doesn’t have enough to justify the hype.
The main problem plaguing Sculptoris a lack of identity. Luluc’s music is reasonably distinctive: slow folk, simple arrangements, and Randell’s strong, rounded singing. But it’s not quite distinctive enough. Other artists working in the new-folk tradition recognise the need to add something unique – and the danger of anonymity that comes with building each track out of the same small pool of materials. Though Sculptor sees them broadening their musical palette, Luluc still don’t have enough to set themselves apart.
This issue is compounded by the abundance of guest stars – another way the album’s pedigree works against it. J. Mascis’s solo on ‘Me and Jasper’, for instance, sounds memorably far away and wistful, cutting through the arrangement without fighting it. But then it’s over and the song slinks back into the familiar. The horns that open ‘Heist‘, to take another example, sell the song from pretty much the first note, and are the work of The National collaborator Dave Nelson. Eventually, listeners may wonder why they shouldn’t simply turn Sculptoroff and listen to The National, given the overlap in players (and the fact that The National are just plain better).
The lyrics are similarly unremarkable. There’s one exquisite moment of satisfaction on ‘Cambridge‘, where Randell sings about holding her head up high as she takes the stage, even throwing in a ‘f**k yeah’. But most of the material elsewhere is reheated adolescent whining about ‘small-town minds’. These simple themes would play better if there was more fire to the music – a more genuine sense of rebellion, of breaking free. Coming from Luluc, they just sound pretentious.
Sculptor suffers from having the kind of music that seems to demand close attention, but lyrics that don’t reward it. This mix of subpar lyrics and un-engaging sound does the album no favours. The arrangements sometimes complement the material, as on the beautiful ‘Cambridge’, where the delicacy of the playing creates the perfect atmosphere, but it’s frustrating that these successes are so few and far between. More often, there’s just not enough meat on the bones.