Review – “Summon Up a Monkey King” – LUKA

LUKA-Cover-Web-1500reviewed by Laura Stanley & Michael Thomas

This album from Toronto’s LUKA is out Friday. It’s so worth dissecting that Laura and Michael are both reviewing it. This is a conversation between Laura and Michael. And Michael starts.

Michael: It took me a while to completely understand why the music of LUKA is the kind of music that affects me so deeply, that draws me to it. When I first heard “Why Don’t You Go To Her” I was immediately on board with everything Luke Kuplowsky puts out from now until the end of time. As you mentioned in a Facebook message, Laura, it’s at once so sweet and so, so sad. LUKA’s heart wants him to go to her, but LUKA always finds a reason not to do so; he’s tired, he’s unsure, he’s downright afraid.

Hearing this song in the context of the album and his other songs finally nailed down what I love about his music; he’s completely unafraid to do and say whatever it takes to get his feelings across. In one of the album’s best songs, “Always the Same Bed,” he sings “You call to me with the cooing a pigeon” followed by the actual cooing of a pigeon; the next line is “And I reply with the mewling of a cat” followed by, you guessed it, a “meow.” In any other context this would be corny, but in LUKA’s world it’s somehow part and parcel of what he does.

More than anything, Summon Up a Monkey King is an album full of small, great moments like this. He uses the Journey of the West‘s central character as a muse, finding jest and heartbreak in everything. “First and Last” is recounted like an old cowboy tale, with a few lines that aren’t even in song; “A Kiss” could have just been a simple, minor-chord-strummed song, but instead it subtly weaves in flutes and synths when necessary. When you’ve listened to “Why Don’t You Go To Her” enough times, you can even catch Luke Kuplowsky’s oh-so-subtle vocal work; by the time the heart is asking “Can’t you just talk to her?” you can hear the quiet exasperation, as if he almost knows the answer will be “no.”

Laura: Remember a few weeks ago when we were talking about Summon Up A Monkey King and you said you love “Always the Same Bed” and, as you said here, particularly Kuplowsky’s coo and meow? And then you likened it to that part in Jennifer Castle’s “Down River” when she sings, “had to slay a dragon just to clear my throat” and then she clears her throat? That made me so happy because that was exactly what came to mind the first time I heard “Always the Same Bed.”

I absolutely adore little lyrical details like this in song and, I couldn’t agree with you more, there’s so many masterful lyrics throughout this record. Some of my favourites:

  • In “First and Last,” Kuplowsky puts on the b-side of David Bowie’s Low and it ends up being the soundtrack to a break-up, prompting him to mutter, “goddamn you David Bowie…all songs are just lies.”
  • When Kuplowsky introduces “Why Don’t You Go to Her” by saying, “this is a conversation between me and my heart. Yeah, the heart starts…”
  • Later in “You Must Be Open,” Kuplowsky nods back to this conversation with his heart when he sings, “Will you listen to your heart? That’s a question. Blind as it may be.” The fact that “You Must Be Open” is the album closer too lets you know that it’s a question that remains unanswered.

I think what I’m also enthralled with is that despite its outwardly playful and breezy -Kuplowsky’s strumming is constantly calm – attitude, Summon Up A Monkey King is a devastating record. To open “Never Write About the Women You Love,” Kuplowsky sings, “I could offer you some advice in songwriting though I am not a reliable source. I have broken all the rules…” and given it’s an album that heavily focuses on past relationships, we can assume that Kuplowsky really did break his rule to never write about the women he loves.

“A Kiss” is haunting like an unshakeable kiss. We literally hear the pounding of a heart as Kuplowsky desperately grabs at the wisps of a broken relationship. And then of course, there’s “Why Don’t You Go To Her.” It punches me in the gut every time I listen to it. Revealing your feelings to someone is scary as hell and no matter what your heart screams at you to do, your mind is always the more powerful one. And man, does Kuplowsky ever summarize that struggle perfectly.

Michael: I didn’t pick up a lot of those subtle little things you pointed out, and it’s another reason that this album is such a joy. There aren’t too many albums that reward not just repeat listening, but active listening. It says a lot that Kuplowsky has enough faith in his listeners to unravel his metaphors and even his metafiction—until you mentioned it, I hadn’t even realized “Never Write About the Women You Love” could be as much a commentary on writing about love as it was about writing this album. And listening back on that song, it goes back to the Monkey King that inspires this album—he’s “not a reliable source,” and the unreliable narrator always leaves the possibility that everything you’re hearing is not a part of reality.

I’m on about my half-dozenth listen to this record now and I’m finding some some new details I really love:

  • The beginning of “A Kiss” describes it as “The lover’s dirt,” which has two meanings: it could be seen as something unsavory, or something that is clandestine. To LUKA, there’s many politics to a kiss.
  • “Pauses of the Night” has a great line: “Love is a profession you can never choose.” Of all the ways I’ve heard love described, it makes perfect sense to liken it to a job. Some jobs are always exciting, some are a slog, and some take some time to find peace with.

I’m glad you mentioned that passage in “You Must Be Open,” and it makes me feel like “Why Don’t You Go To Her” is perhaps literally and metaphorically the beating heart of the entire album. In “A Kiss,” following that great “Lover’s dirt” line, he follows it up by saying “Don’t ask yourself, ‘Will I get hurt?'” Sure enough, LUKA asks himself that a mere two songs later, much to the exasperated heart’s chagrin.

We could probably go on for 1,000 more words about the density and layers and intertextuality of this album, but there’s a ton here that is immediately gratifying on the first listen. Kuplowsky has a real sense of hooks through repetition, driving the idea home with just a few words. The ending of “Always the Same Bed” has LUKA saying despite changing variables, the bed is still the same. As Kuplowsky, Ada Dahi and Julie Arsenault sing/chant “The same” over and over again, it’s as though LUKA is trying to convince us that he’s right. In “Love is the Eternal Weight,” LUKA repeats “How far can you go?”

Can we talk about how great Dahi and Arsenault are, by the way? Kuplowsky seems to know exactly when their wonderful voices make a song that much more wonderful. The “doo-wop” background vocals in “You Can Tell Me Everything” make it such a bright and sunny little song.

Laura: Yesss – the additional vocals of Ada Dahi and Julie Arsenault are so fantastic! Like you said, I feel like the come in at such opportune moments as well – I really like the repetition of “the same” at the end of “Always the Same Bed” and when they reaffirm LUKA’s feelings by gently repeating lyrics throughout “Summon Up A Monkey King.”

I mentioned Kuplowsky breezy strumming earlier but before we wrap this up, I want to take a moment to talk about the instrumentation throughout the album. At time it’s light and playful, like his lyrics, as the notes jump from the nylon strings of his guitar while at other times, the record has a poppy/surf-rock vibe particularly when an electric guitar pops-up to deliver a sunny little guitar solo. “A Kiss,” though, probably has my favourite instrumentation: Multiple guitar parts weave in and out, dancing, but never forceful – like the “whisper of a kiss.” In the last 30 seconds or so, a string section kicks and escorts listeners out in a dizzying fashion, not unlike the effects of a kiss.

Well, here we are nearly 1500 words later and I think it’s safe to say that LUKA’s Summon Up A Monkey King is a thought provoking look on love and one of the best folk albums of the year so far.

Michael’s Top Tracks: “Why Don’t You Go to Her”; “Always the Same Bed”

Michael’s Rating: Hunting Call (Excellent) + *swoop*

Laura’s Top Tracks: “Why Don’t You Go to Her”; “First and Last”

Laura’s Rating: Proud Hoot (Really Good)

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