In Brief: Hook-heavy, nostalgic pop music that manages to be enjoyable despite its inherent goofiness. Your enjoyment of this album will probably be inversely proportional to how seriously you assume these two guys take themselves.
Sometimes my response to music lies in this weird dead zone, where I can’t decide if the music’s actually good and just extremely quirky, or if it’s more appropriately sorted into the “So Bad It’s Good” category. Often I have to chalk it up to artist intent, which is a presumptuous thing to try to figure out to begin with, short of tracking down interviews where the artist clearly stated a goal. Are they serious? Do they not realize how corny they sound? If they were intentionally going for the most corny, over-the-top thing they could imagine, does that take something lame and make it awesome? Is it a stealth parody? Or a genuine homage to an unfairly maligned genre that’s long since been out of vogue?
All of these questions come to mind when listening to the Australian synthpop duo Empire of the Sun. Just one look at their outlandish costumes, which straddle the line between Star Wars-clone B-movie campiness and some misinformed Western approximation of samurai culture, is likely to elicit the question “Are you kidding me?” That’s before you even hear the music, which throws itself headlong into the excesses of the 70’s and 80’s, coming out with a mixture that’s somewhere between disco, new wave, and new age. Throw in some of the most ridiculous, helium-laced vocals you can imagine, and you’ve got a potentially volatile mixture of sounds certain to get the band laughed off of any stage. Except they don’t seem to be kidding around. The lyrics – which for their part are just about as ridiculous – seem to speak of genuine romance and heartbreak at times, when they’re not off on some weird, trippy tangent that only fans of The Flaming Lips could possibly hope to decode. All of these remarks probably make it sound like I’m intent on delivering a big, flaming bag of poo right to the band’s doorstep, but the dirty little secret is that I actually sort of enjoy this.
Apparently it’s been a huge success on their home turf and throughout Europe, too. Both of the band’s members had previously established a following – Nick Littlemore with the electronic outfit Pnau, and Luke Steele with the alt-rock group The Sleepy Jackson. Their first collaboration, titled Walking on a Dream, has produced several hit singles, and I can see exactly why – the songs might be patently ridiculous and hit some of the oldest cliches in the book, but they’re insidiously catchy and seem to occupy a dreamy universe all their own, which fits extremely well with the band’s outlandish costumes and music videos. If you think back to how folks like David Bowie, Prince, and Madonna once broke ground by doing things that risked getting them laughed off of their own continents, and how the general public seems to be eating out of Lady Gaga‘s hand as she does the same today, suddenly it doesn’t seem so strange. I don’t pretend to know a great level of detail about any of those artists, but I know enough to observe that sometimes you can strike a chord with people just by being a freak. And Empire of the Sun’s version of freakiness is probably a bit more tame than the aforementioned, hearkening back to a comparatively more innocent time, and never aiming for intentional shock value. (Which means people are more likely to see them as a bizarre curiosity than a constant headline.) At times, they come up with genuinely good pop songs. At other times, the results are so laughably bad that you can’t help but wonder what the hell they were thinking. Either way, I have to admit it’s entertaining.
1. Standing on the Shore
The first track’s a pretty good litmus test for whether you’re gonna like this band at all, as it’s a fine example of how they work in “normal mode”. A soft, sunny wash of guitars and synthetic sounds meets a danceable backbeat which is simple but effective, bringing to mind the basic ingredients that worked for any number of pop songs in the 80s. There’s a lead guitar riff that seems to keep climbing up above itself, like a bird circling on a wind current, and the whole thing brings to mind a peaceful day at the beach. Then Luke Steele’s vocals come in (at least, I think he’s the one singing lead – you can correct me if I’ve got the two guys mixed up), and they seem at first to be the element that sticks out like a sore thumb, having this sour, sort of metallic tinge to them that honestly took me a while to get over. Nick Littlemore, for his part, handles the prettier falsetto stuff and is mostly relegated to background support, though on an instrumental level I have no idea which of them is providing what. The song seems to speak of a day spent walking by the sea, with a couple seeking reconciliation but deciding it’s better to just enjoy the silence than to mess it up by trying to talk things out and getting into an argument. “Don’t want to talk; all I hear is noise”, says the simple chorus. That’s the simplest explanation – there’s some freaky stuff about exploding stars and “ley lines running down her arms” that suggests a more mystical interpretation. You can probably read a lot more into it if you stare at the oversaturated pretty colors in the album art above each song’s lyrics.
2. Walking on a Dream
Nothing but lovey-dovey fluffy clouds in this one. The clicking rhythm and soft synths that open the song try to take us back several decades, to before we thought any of this was cheesy, and while I’m not sure I’m convinced that it isn’t cheesy, I have to admire their insistence in trying. Lyrics are little more than fragments of happy thoughts here, coming from a man who can’t believe how lucky it is to be in love. The two vocalists trade off more equally, with Steele’s verses being blurted out in little more than monotone, while Littlemore’s falsetto soars on the chorus. Both enunciate about as well as a man engaged in a Chubby Bunny competition, so a simple sentiment like “Is it real now?” could be just as easily heard as “Is it random?” or “It’s surrender”. The song also fades out rather quickly and unassumingly upon reaching its final chorus, which initially left me to wonder if I’d downloaded a radio single edit… but nope, that’s what ended up on the CD. A slight disappointment, but still a catchy and carefree single that was a hit for understandable reasons.
3. Half Mast
This was the song that got me into the group. It’s got just the right balance of (comparatively) modern electronic sounds and vintage melody. The keyboard and the guitar play off each other beautifully, with the keyboard simply running up and down through its spacey sequence of four notes, while the guitar maintains a simple, bouncy melody that probably could have been the lifted from any number of yacht rock songs and/or 1970’s daytime television commercials. It nags at something in me that feels like I’m supposed to recognize the musical reference, while taking it in a futuristic direction that I didn’t quite expect… and even when not analyzed that deeply, it’s just a great dance track. Luke Steele’s vocals mimic the guitar melody, beckoning a lover who has distanced herself from him to give one more chance to say he’s sorry. He tantalizes her by suggesting a variety of romantic retreats: “Hotel in the hills with a carousel… Farmhouse in the front a tractor in the lounge… Go hiking in the hills in a summer gown.” Nick Littlemore seals it with a chorus that is stupidly easy and yet monstrously effective, his androgynous voice pining: “Oh, oh, oh, honey I need you ’round.” This one was apparently a bit of a late bloomer as a single, to the point whnere it was remixed as “Half Mast (Slight Return)”, which chops up the beat and the overall flow of it in a way that I didn’t think really did it justice. So just keep that in mind if you end up seeing the song’s bizarre video (which, for its part, looks like two vagrant Lady Gaga wannabes are having an argument over a dead bird). What both versions maintain, that I really like, is an acoustic guitar undercurrent, which in this album version, segues seamlessly into the next track.
4. We Are the People
I love how this one starts off with the simple strumming of that same acoustic guitar, the chords shifted to a slightly darker hue, but otherwise keeping the rhythm going from “Half Mast”. The overall feel here is mellower – there’s still a programmed beat that kicks in and plenty of starry keyboards, but it plays as a bit more of a ballad. Backing off on the high-energy pop stuff allows them more room for lyrical weirdness, though, as what could be a simple song reminiscing about youth and innocence and some special night back in 1975 quickly turns weird, with lines you’d swear I was making up just to make fun of them, such as this winner: “The scent of a lemon drips from your eyes”. (Steele’s vocal delivery makes it that much more unintentionally funny.) Despite the odd approach, the song makes a memorable mark and once again proves that the band has plenty of single-worthy hooks up their sleeve, particularly when Littlemore’s chorus unexpectedly shifts to a major chord where minor is expected, shifting from despair to hope between the lines “Are you gonna leave me now?” and “Can you be believing now?” I like that it lets that tiny glimmer of light into what would otherwise feel like more of a weary, downtrodden song.
5. Delta Bay
This is the first moment where things get almost unforgivably crazy. I’ve been reasonably forgiving about the vocals up to this point – they’re an acquired taste, but they haven’t struck me as being overly affected or exaggerated. But when the harsh, jerky beat kicks in, and Steele starts speaking, rapping, grunting, or whatever the hell he’s doing in his best attempt to approximate the voice of an alien, it’s irritating as all get out. The sonic quality of it is hard to describe, so the best I can advise is that you go look at a picture of Aphex Twin, preferably one of the many where he’s got a menacing grin on his face, and imagine that dude trying to sing after sucking the helium out of a balloon. Even Littlemore’s falsetto chorus is cartoonishly exaggerated here, albeit the only thing that anchors the song with any semblance of a melodic hook. Not that all songs need catchy melodies to survive – I actually like the “futuristic hovercraft chase” sort of feeling that the frantic rhythm provides, and there’s a bit of backmasking and other sound effect trickery that makes it a little bit more fun. I just can’t get over the wackiness of the vocals, and their lunatic ranting that doesn’t seem to make any sense whatsoever even with a lyric sheet in front of me to help me decode it. It’s too easy to play the “Were they on drugs?” card when I hear stuff like this, so I’ll be charitable and just assume they’d had way too much caffeine that day.
Instrumental time! I wouldn’t blame you for being skeptical in terms of your expectations that some sort of compositional genius could come from these two wacky guys with their vintage keyboard sounds and all that. But a break from the vocal weirdness is a welcome intermission at this point, and this one manages to be much more than a palette cleanser, actually turning out to be one of my favorite Empire tracks. The recipe’s simple enough, start with a thumbling guitar arpeggio that chews over the same two minor chords, add some dark electric guitar on top of that to put it in a big, echoing space that makes us imagine colorful nebulas and stuff, then pile on all manner of fluttering synthesizer sounds to make us feel like we’re rolling through a vast field of green hills populated with waterfalls that flow upwards and flowers that come alive and talk to us. I probably just have an overactive imagination – a lot of other folks are probably going to hear this and turn up their noses, thinking this is the kind of stuff you play in some quack wellness clinic where they try to teach you about the healing power of crystals and whatnot. Well hey, at least in that case the music would produce a pleasant enough placebo effect.
7. The World
Such broad titles here – “Country” and “The World”. As if those things could be encompassed in a song. It doesn’t stop Empire from trying, though, bringing Steele’s vocals back to ask some ridiculously elongated questions of Earth itself, namely when it began and where it went wrong. The lyrics hint at a post-apocalyptic scenario in which he’s one of the only people left to pine over the sad state of destruction that the place has been left in – “No mothers and fathers to make us any more, No arms or eyes to shape us.” The beat sort of pops and skips along, keyboards humming a shimmery fanfare, as if we’re being escorted into the celestial palace which holds the supreme being who could actually answer such questions. The effect it has on me as a listener is less than supreme, though – Steele’s voice has a sharper edge to it than usual, which causes the vocal track to be much more prominent in the mix than it feels like it needs to be, and Littlemore’s chorus feels like more of a bridge, so the song doesn’t have as strong of a defining hook. Still lots of nice bells and whistles in this one, but the song at its core just isn’t as strong or memorable, and it feels like it’s trying to deal with far more vast questions than it can hope to make any interesting headway with.
8. Swordfish Hotkiss Night
Threatening to steal the prize for utter ludicrousness (ludicrosy?) right out from under “Delta Bay” is this goofy, rubbery synthpop workout, which sounds an awful lot like what must have happened when the first time a New Wave band back in the 80’s finally caught wind of rap music’s popularity, and decided, “The kids would think we were so cool if we rapped on this one!” It’s pretty silly before the “rapping” even begins, with the opening verse being a sweaty whisper of “Got you everything I wanted when I wasn’t sitting on it!” (and seriously, I’m not mis-hearing that one), which leads into a chorus that I’m hoping Prince considers the sincerest form of flattery. Steele’s spoken-word hilarity doesn’t even hit until the second verse, and he gives some already surreal lyrics the mush-mouth treatment, perhaps because it’s impossible to blurt out nonsense like “Kings Cross hot shot/Jesus Christ on web blog/Cowboy at a cop shop/Tiger in a drug store” while keeping a straight face. At least, I can’t listen to this one without wanting to bust a gut at their expense. The funny thing is, it’s so difficult to get it out of my head. You can pretend it’s that one song you and your friends all knew when it was big in the 80’s, and which you know nowadays is a ridiculous piece of drivel, but if they played it at a high school reunion, you and your friends would dance to it anyway, and you would recite ALL THE WORDS. I’ve got to give credit where it’s due, because this might be even more stupidly catchy than whatever Brandon Flowers song I feel like making fun of this week.
9. Tiger By My Side
You’d expect the album’s longest track – at nearly six minutes – to be some horribly overblown attempt at heavily synthesized prog rock or something at this point. Much to my surprise, the band has actually reigned it in at this point and created an extended dance track that does its job simply but effectively. The surreal lyrics are still in full force (and seriously, what is the deal with these guys and tigers? I guess they’re not alone, since Duran Duran and Depeche Mode have referenced the animal a few times as well.) But learning that Luke Steele actually has a daughter named “Sunny Tiger” (as much as it makes me feel for the poor kid) puts those lyrics in perspective, boiling a man’s regret over having to spend a lot of his time away from his child due to the demands of touring, and turning his explanation of why daddy has to leave again into a fantasy tale of far-flung exotic locales and dragons and healing the world with music, and all sorts of other stuff that would be pretentious if he weren’t talking to a kid. If you interpret it as saying he’s strongest with daddy’s little girl by his side, then it actually becomes rather sweet. But even if you ignore that, the fat synthesized bass licks and the relentless chorus are enough of a draw to make it worthwhile. The song never wears out its welcome despite the repetition of certain sections and the long fadeout at the end.
10. Without You
Slow dance time! Seriously, this song’s steady, dragging beat and nostalgic synth tones make it easy to picture a would-have-been couple’s last dance at that aforementioned high school reunion, before they have to return to their normal lives and say goodbye for another 5 years. Disco ball overhead and EVERYTHING. Lyrically, it’s the grown-up version of the “I’m sorry I have to be away from home” song that “Tiger” was for Steele’s daughter, this one being more of a grown-up love song to his wife that simply says nothing makes sense when she’s around. The world is a place without order – no color, no symmetry, no future, no past, just a sort of… blur. I like that even this simple sentiment is expressed in the group’s trademark surreal language, but the song feels really empty. (I guess that’s appropriate, but it feels like there should be something more to make it sonically interesting.) Since Steele also handles the chorus, we get another moment of unintended hilarity when he pronounces the word “Babe” in just about the oddest way possible. The word just hangs out there at the end of the chorus, so it’s impossible not to notice it. That’ll probably be the deal-breaker for some guys who want to put this on a mix for the girl they’re pining after, but know the weird vocals are just gonna jar her out of that special, emotional moment she would otherwise be experiencing. Then again, if you approach love like that silly Boy George caricature from The Wedding Singer, mascara running down your face from the tears and all that, this’ll probably be right up your alley.
OH DEAR GOD MAKE IT STOP. Actually, the album does stop at “Without You”, but because I’m feeling sadistic, I’ll cover this bonus track that got tacked on with the download. It’s aptly titled, consisting of little more than a programmed drum groove that would normally show up where the instruments cut out in the middle of a song, instead extended into its own two-and-a-half minute “song” that consists little more of a screamed “chorus” and spoken-word “verses” that are thoroughly irritating to listen to, broken up occasionally by little bridges of aimless, noodling synths, or grating dischordant electric guitar. It’s like they designed every element of the song to be as grating and punishing as possible, while still making sure it passed as neutered, nostalgic synthpop. The end result is like an exercise video in which you get yelled at a lot by your trainer colliding head-on with snippets of melody from The Kinks‘ “My Sharona” (and by using “melody”, I’m being quite generous). It mercifully sputters to a halt before they’re able to take it any further, but YOWCH. I’m glad this didn’t make the album.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Standing on the Shore $1.50
Walking on a Dream $1
Half Mast $2
We Are the People $1.50
Delta Bay -$.50
The World $0
Swordfish Hotkiss Night $1
Tiger By My Side $1
Without You $.50
Breakdown (I won’t penalize the album for this one)
Originally published on Epinions.com.