Stardust is less about telling a start-to-finish story and more about showing us a brief snapshot of our lives as we journey around the closest, brightest star.
Great art is easy to take for granted. I’m reminded of this truth every time I see a terribly produced movie. Whether it’s stilted writing, cardboard-cutout performances, or a general lack of storytelling instinct, nothing makes me appreciate skillful and vivid cinema more than awful filmmaking. It’s not at all surprising to me to find out that Toronto-based singer-songwriter Luka Kuplowsky daylights as an adjunct professor of film when he’s not making jazz-infused folk songs rich with narrative arcs. Kuplowsky’s songs are populated by mostly anonymous characters pursuing answers to life’s big questions.
Like the work of a skillful cinematographer and detail-minded director, the songs on Kuplowsky’s album Stardust set a scene with tone, texture, and drama that he casts with easily relatable personalities. There is immediacy and intimacy coursing through the album’s eleven songs, due in large part to being mostly recorded live off the floor and in just a few days. Always an idiosyncratic singer, Kuplowsky’s lyrical poetry swoops and dives in time — and occasionally contrary to — with his all-star band’s playing. There’s space between notes for tension, heartache, and pure love to find its way to the surface. On the title track, Kuplowsky muses about the fragility of life (“The world is only big and grand / When nothing is personal / The world can get so small you know / Suffocate body and soul”) while his band finds the most non-linear way through the music. Each instrument seems at once separated from each other yet tethered to the song’s emotional truth. That makes perfect sense given that in press materials announcing Stardust, Kuplowsky referred to the record’s voice as a planet orbited by the instruments. That free-form playing gives way to taut rhythms on album highlight “Positive Push.” The song’s bouncy groove buoys some of Kuplowsky’s most waggish and whimsical poetry: “I feel restless, I lost my edge / I remember what my father said / ‘If feathers tickle as they do / Why don’t they make the chickens laugh too?’ / You gotta be the butt of your own joke sometimes / To be serious too much is to be blind.”
And therein lies Kuplowsky’s great strength as a storyteller and songwriter. His keen, intellectual, cinematic ear knows when to turn the screws, ramp up the tension, heighten the emotional truth of the story, and when to let his audience off the hook. Kuplowsky knows that it’s life’s lighter moments that get us through our everyday trials and tribulations. On Stardust, he finds a way to translate that rhythm of life into a song cycle that circles all those big questions — What is the function of love? How do we know we’re on the right track? What happens when this is all over? — but refuses to spoon-feed us any answers. Like the work of cinematic masters Kuplowsky admires and is inspired by, Stardust is less about telling a start-to-finish story, and more about showing us a brief snapshot of our lives as we journey around the closest, brightest star.