For an album recorded and mixed live-to-tape in a single day, What Kind of Animal plays like a study in stillness. On his third full-length, Toronto-based musician LUKA capitalizes on his greatest asset, the bleak intimacy of his vocals, surrounding it with arrangements that are content to simmer in the background until called forth to add a touch of chaos. But these outbursts are exceptions to the rule, momentary squalls rippling across otherwise placid waters. An observational songwriter with a keen eye for bleak imagery, LUKA crafts shadowy folk that slithers its way into your heart. What Kind of Animal is a perfect soundtrack to existential dread, a predawn whisper that hangs over you long after sunrise.
LUKA’s tunes sleepwalk down a lineage of somber, close-mic’d pop stretching from The Velvet Underground’s self-titled record up to Yo La Tengo’s groundbreaking And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. The sonic focus is squarely on the vocals in the style of Lou Reed’s “closet mixes,” with the supporting instrumentation pushed up and away to emphasize the loneliness of LUKA’s delivery; he sounds truly isolated in the mix, as if he’s singing along to the decaying memory of a song. The softly brushed drums, twinkling guitars, and warm bass hum along dutifully, breaking the reflective mood in only two moments—the ascendant guitar solo on “Animal” and the collective noise-scape that closes out “Happy”—where the cohesion of LUKA’s live band strategically lets off a little steam, bucking you awake after a particularly sleepy stretch.
To be sure, the mood on What Kind of Animal is predominantly overcast. On opener “Near Collision,” LUKA wastes all of two bars before spilling his lonesome guts. “She cried last night / So I held her / She read his poetry in tears,” he confesses, following it up with what might be the album’s finest lyric and thesis statement: “I cannot help but be dazzled by debris.” Indeed, many songs on the record come across like an examination of his own emotional wreckage. The surrealist imagery of standout track “Realize” reads like prelude to a broken relationship, peppered with fortune-cookie distillations of 4 a.m. post-fight wisdom. “Love is but a voice / That calls on you,” he sings, helpless against the tide of emotion sweeping him away as “Everything I feel about you / Moves inward.”
The singular moment of sunlight on the record, “Quick Reflex”, is also its shortest, and can’t help but be tainted by an escapist need for retreat into an idealized past. “Quick reflex / Flex and you’ll be in the past / Quick reflex / Flex and you’ll be home at last,” goes the chorus, sounding absolutely positive that if he can crack open the meaning of objects from an earlier time, he can disappear into it again. This kind of twisted, self-effacing optimism is LUKA’s sweet spot, and the swaying track coasts into the sunset with sprays of shimmering guitar. It serves as a pleasant and welcome counterpoint to the creeping fear that haunts the rest of What Kind of Animal, a masterful rendering of LUKA’s nocturnal sympathies.