With their third album, Sculptor, Luluc’s Zoe Randall and Steve Hassett cast their characteristically serene and understated folk into a harsher, more challenging light than in the past. On 2014’s Passerby, the Australian duo made peace with hard-to-swallow truths, like the ephemeral nature of life, but on Sculptor, there’s an undeniable sense of uneasiness lurking beneath Randall’s lyrics and a disquieting sparseness in Hassett’s backing tracks. Where Passerby reached halcyon conclusions, Sculptor feels restless, transforming the album’s bucolic scenery into treacherous terrain.
Randall’s Nico-esque alto evokes the isolation of adolescence on “Kids,” lamenting a small town’s overbearing schoolteachers and cops who hound misfit teens: “Take off that filthy punk rock tee/We know your name and where you live.” Matching the foreboding lyrics, an ominous synth simmers faintly at first, then crescendos to deafening effect at the song’s end. Even instances of ostensible calm have an air of unease. On “Moon Girl,” Randall watches a loved one sleep under the stars, ruminating on their shared moments. Still, she can’t keep from viewing this tranquil scene as fragile: “That big clock that does move so slow/Will catch you up so be on those toes.”
Randall’s penchant for literary allusions and clever half-rhymes is both a strength and a hindrance. The musical and lyrical simplicity of the opening track, “Spring,” is as unclouded and guileless as the season: “When spring comes, in all green things that grow/A new pulse of life, beats warmly all aglow.” As sprawling guitar unfurls over muted piano, Hassett and Randall harmonize, repeating a six-line verse—adapted from Japanese poet Ise’s “Spring Days and Blossom”—that charts spring’s swift arrival and departure.
Poetry lends itself far better to music than prose, and Randall confirms this on “Controversy,” in which she recites an excerpt attacking suburban mediocrity from George Johnston’s classic Australian novel My Brother Jack. She sounds as if she were laboring to perform a tongue twister, clumsily speeding through a tangle of multisyllabic words; at best, it’s comical, but at worst, it’s pretentious, to the point that it’s hard to believe this is the same singer who lets out an unconcerned “fuck, yeah” on “Cambridge.”
Its layered exploration of feeling uneasy with permanence ensures that Sculptor is, thematically, Luluc’s most complicated work to date. Musically, though, the album falls in step with the band’s previous work. Although we’re treated to a bit more color—the atmospheric synth on “Heist” and the vivid guitar solo on “Me & Jasper,” courtesy of J Mascis—each instrument is carefully positioned in the sparse arrangements. Because the music is so stark and Randall’s melodies so wandering, songs quickly become unmoored from a straightforward structure, yielding music that feels nebulous and forgettable.
On the album’s title track, Randall musters up the courage to “color and trace” her worst fears, likening the endeavor to molding a sculpture. But in the end, she and Hassett suggest sketch artists more than they do sculptors: They fail to impart their work with full-bodied substance, only getting at the contours of what they’re capable of musically. Sculptor’s Achilles’ heel lies in its skeletal song structures, which feel too flimsy next to the enormity of the album’s message of eschewing complacency.