Australian duo Luluc made listeners swoon in 2014 with their breakout album, Passerby, a ten-song compilation of soft lullabies conjured by Zoë Randell’s cooing alto, Steve Hassett’s occasional harmonies, and a minimalist backdrop of guitar strums. If music were tactile, Passerby would be a soft touch on the shoulder, warm in its reassurance that steadiness and comfort still exist in an overwhelming world. From the acoustic quarter-notes that open “Small Window” to Randell’s hums that close the album, Passerby made a case for modesty and restraint in an age when technology offers musicians infinite resources to adorn their voices, melodies, and accompaniment in sonic finery. If the album had a flaw, it would lie in this very consistency, for even delicate beauty can grate over the course of ten songs that hardly vary in structure, tempo, or tone.
Arriving when many of us hunger for reassurance, Luluc’s follow-up Sculptor retains the charms that courted new listeners on Passerby while experimenting with tools that some folk-inspired peers have taken up more readily. Lead single “Heist” opens with a horn and organ progression accented by occasional grace notes, a hymn-like accompaniment that clears the way for Randell’s voice to implore, “Give up the ghost and that stymied reproach.” In its first 40 seconds, “Heist” subtracts the repetitive guitar strumming on which earlier songs relied, introducing Randell instead with sounds that could fill a cathedral. The song takes its time building new valences around the lead voice; as the composition progresses, we hear not just a rumbling kick but also the synthetic patter of programmed drums (courtesy of longtime collaborator Aaron Dessner of the National), as well as some reverbed guitar and bass. The refrain finds each phrase Randell intones—”How can you say that / You want your own back / When you never gave it up”—echoed by a choir manufactured out of Hassett’s multi-tracked vocals. Mechanical reproduction here does not undermine but, rather, enhances the organic conditions that brought Luluc into being.
From the start, Luluc possessed what builders call good bones: Randell’s remarkable voice and songwriting, Hassett’s instinct for how (and when) to supplement Randell, and a collaborative ethos that balanced the two. If the duo spent another few decades constructing songs out of these components, they would likely make a fine career selling records at Starbucks and playing regional folk festivals. Instead, however, a clear throughline of ambition runs from their earliest collaboration Dear Hamlyn (2008)—an even sparer offering than Passerby—to Sculptor. The good bones remain, but there are sinew and muscle wrapped around them now that enables them to take off in surprising new directions. That results in a far more agile record that, at its weakest, sounds like their prior achievements and, at its most ambitious, inspires reverence and awe.
Like “Heist”, Sculptor‘s tracks create spacious environments in which Randell’s voice and lyrics can live, breathe, and connect. Opener “Spring” borrows language from “Spring and Blossom”, a poem by the ninth-century Japanese poet Isé containing seasonal observations like “A new pulse of life, beats warmly all aglow / Long are the golden days.” The production on “Spring” seems geared to transmute the poem’s visual imagery into sound: like the coming of its titular season, the song begins tentatively—just piano, guitar, and cymbal—and blooms into layer upon layer of texture made up of harmonies, additional guitar parts, more assertive drums, and sustained organ chords. Other songs gain dimension thanks to new collaborators, such as J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr., whose guitar solo on “Me and Jasper” creates a productive friction with Randell’s and Hassett’s folksy melody, and Jim White of Australian post-rock band Dirty Three, whose jazz-inflected drumming on “Genius” complements the song’s lyrics about a creator who fancies himself pretentious enough to exist “in a sure and righteous castle”.
Thematically, Sculptor seeks to beckon and connect outward rather than to introspect. The first-person pronoun appears sparingly; instead, Randell speaks to audiences ranging from “small town minds” in her rural Australian hometown (on “Kids”) to a friend—perhaps a listener surrogate—in need of basic reassurances (“Needn’t Be”). On that track, Sculptor becomes a timely piece of work, acknowledging that we’re living through a hailstorm of bad news that makes accomplishing the most mundane tasks seem daunting. Randell chants a series of gentle commands to the listener: “Pick up those clothes / Spread the sheets / Open the blinds / Wash out your weary eyes.” In its quiet way, Luluc makes music out of generosity, offering solace through sound and language when many of us need those things most. Sculptor is a small gift coming at the right time, a 36-minute reverie that nonetheless remains rooted in waking life.