In Brief: Despite the embarrassing quirks that hold them back artistically, Empire of the Sun has crafted a consistent and enjoyable follow-up to their intriguing but highly flawed debut.
It’s been five long years since we last heard from the Australian electro-retro-pop duo Empire of the Sun. Or at least, since we heard from them in the form of an album. Their so-cheesy-it’s-mysteriously-cool style, as heard on their debut Walking on a Dream, racked up a few hits for the duo, but it felt like half of them were in remix form. This suggests a group that views their songs as more of a moving target than a statement etched in stone – thus, they’re always in flux, reimagining the musical wardrobes of some of their songs in order to best fit them into the glitzy, production-heavy stage show they call a concert. They’re the sort of act where the people involved almost disappear into the gaudy decorations and production style. As much as the songwriting may discuss personal matters of the heart (when the lyrics aren’t totally crazyballs, at least), it can feel like what they’re doing is nearly the antithesis of the singer/songwriter genre, since the style and glamour of it all takes center stage and so much attention is paid to the ornate details. That could be a knock against some bands. It’s clearly the sort of thing the music industry as a whole seemed to rebel against for a while, stripping back the synthesizers and the production tricks and whatnot to wash off the excesses of the 70s and 80s. But in Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore‘s universe, the 90s apparently never happened. It can be distracting if you’re the type to pick apart lyrics and wince when performers intentionally ham it up. But it’s sort of fun if you view their over-the-top, three-layers-of-candy-coating style of pop music as an intentional exercise in excess. This approach had its fair share of peaks and valleys on Walking on the Sun, and after a few years of touring and a break to work on some other things (including composing for Cirque du Soleil, if that tells you anything about their theatrical nature), the two men seem to have worked out a lot of the kinks on their new album, Ice on the Dune.
And therein lies the rub – I sort of miss a few of those kinks. As off-puttingly weird as tracks like “Delta Bay”, “The World”, and “Breakdown” were on their debut, there were also some deviations from their “typical sound” that really paid off on that album. Ice on the Dune is a far more consistent listen from track to track, often to the point where the rich production sheen obscures the differences between several of the songs, and it’s one big, smooth, perm-and-pastel-filled high school dance. The new album still has its highlights, its hits-in-waiting that in time, I’ll probably learn to love as much as I do “Half Mast” or “We Are the People”. And I’m sure some folks will be relieved to not hear them going off into New-Agey instrumental nonsense like they did on “Country” or rubbery funk-rap like “Swordfish Hotkiss Night”. But dang it, those tracks were among my favorites because they balanced the weird and the wondrous in interesting ways. Others may feel the same about the tracks that I panned from that album. Here, the worst the band manages to do is a few average ballads, only notable for approaching the ridiculous in the level of melodramatic fervor in Luke Steele’s oddball voice. The upside is that he’s learned to curtail the more grating aspects of it, for the most part, better balancing it with the “dreamy falsetto” aspect of his singing that was probably more of a draw in the first place than the unusual sound of his lower register. I thought when I listened to their previous album – and I think I even stuck to this erroneous assumption in my review – that there were two different voices handling the high and low stuff. Nope, that’s all one guy, with a hell of a lot of overdubbing. Littlemore is apparently more of a producer. That dynamic actually helps the group’s sound to make a lot more sense in context, since they both came together after working in other groups, resulting in an odd collision of musical sensibilities. Now that they’re more experienced at working together, it seems like they’re better able to calculate what their audience most wants to hear. But in doing that, it does feel at times like they’ve sacrificed a few personality quirks.
Ultimately, Ice on the Dune isn’t one of those albums that is going to win critical accolades for its songwriting or for its musicianship. It takes talent to put together the array of big shiny sounds heard here, but there’s no attempt being made to do anything post-modern here – there are perhaps a few contemporary dance influences, but for the most part, this group is a lean, mean, nostalgia machine. It is a remarkably listenable album that glides by without getting too monotonous or too overbearing, for the most part, and I listen to it a heck of a lot more than I initially thought I would, so ultimately I think it’s a step up from its predecessor. If you’re looking for the bleeding edge of artsy-fartsy, you can pass on this one. If you’re looking for high-octane pop or electronic music that invokes visual images of exotic lands and elaborate stage shows, this’ll probably fit the bill. If you actually want to see an elaborate stage show for real, then go see ’em live, I guess, and use this album to familiarize yourself with the soundtrack ahead of time. (If you’re a raging homophobe who thinks listening to this sort of stuff could turn you gay, despite the fact that it’s being made by heterosexuals, then I really can’t help you there. Just had to bring that up, because the question comes up from time to time.)
The short instrumental piece that opens the album could well be tied into the rest of it thematically – but musically, it seems disconnected from the songs that follow it, and designed more to nudge us with a reminder that Littlemore did the whole Cirque du Soleil thing. With rolling snare drums and timpanis, this brief fanfare mixes exotic instrumental appeal with a marching rhythm, as if to herald the beginning of a spectacular parade. I’d certainly like to see the duo weave the classical/compositional aspect into some of their songs – there’s epic potential there. Instead, by letting this simply end on a resolved note and pause for several seconds before the next track begins, it feels like unrelated filler.
With a fast-paced acoustic guitar strum, all dressed up in the band’s usual synthetic glitz and glamour, this track pulls me into the album in a big way. A lot of my favorite electronic pop/dance tunes are smart about blending in just the right amount of organic instrumentation, and while I can’t see Empire going fully unplugged any time soon, this is one of those songs like “We Are the People” where I could imagine it working as well in that context as it does here, fully dressed up in wobbling synths and high-energy dance beats. Steele’s using his “weird” voice all the way through this one, without really breaking into his usual falsetto, but that doesn’t make the song a grower in the slightest – this one had the instant appeal for me right from the get-go. There might be bit of modern club/dubstep influence in the heavy bass that gets smeared across the entire chorus – no one would ever mistake these guys for genre pioneers, but it’s interesting to hear how they incorporate the new into the old here. While it usually isn’t worth paying terribly close attention to Empire’s lyrics, they manage to conquer some of their usual cliched habits here. The unusual request to “Be my DNA” seems to be an invitation to create a future together, as if a man is coming to grips with his own mortality and the fact that you can’t go back and relive the past. It’s cheesy – as is absolutely every song these guys write – but there’s a hint of something greater than themselves in it, as if it’s their mission to make little musical time capsules that will survive longer than the men who made them. There is a nod to the title of the previous track here – “We are the creatures raised in Lux” – but that just makes me wish for some musical continuity to bridge the glaring gap between the two tracks.
This is the flagship song of the album, and for good reason – it’s hook is the biggest earworm on the album by a long shot. Simplicity and repetition have a lot to do with it – the lyrics border on being shouted rather than sung, and you’ll either find the chorus of voices exciting or annoying, depending on your sensibilities. It was a bit off-putting to me at first, but before long, I was a slave to the addictive energy of it, and now the darn thing’s lodged deep in my brain. “Loving every minute ’cause you make me feel so alive! Alive! Alive! Alive!” It’s such a stupidly obvious chorus, but that’s the genius of it, because it works way better than it should. The siren-like synths are also an immediately recognizable aspect of the song, so by the time you throw that together with a strong dance beat and a melody that a crowd can pick up in approximately three seconds, you can see they’ve got an obvious hit on their hands. They don’t win a lot of points for originality here – pick apart the lyrics and you’ll realize how goofy the phrasing is – “Freedom is within you, giving makes us feel good”, etc. It’s basically a PSA for caring and sharing. Some stronger lyrics would push this one into the “A” range for me, but it’s still an incredibly addictive song that puts a smile on my face.
4. Concert Pitch
Here, the rhythm backs off a bit in heaviness, leaving us with more of a lighthearted electro-pop tune, and when Empire does this, they run the risk of the coating being so thick that you never quite get to the good stuff inside. The music here makes me think of some sort of video game marketed to girls, with pink and purple fluffy clouds and candy and whatnot. It’s a bit silly, even considering my high level of tolerance for that sort of thing. Steele makes better use of his vocal range here, jumping from “weird” to “falsetto” for the chorus, which unfortunately has the side effect of making the chorus so light and airy that it doesn’t quite register as the main hook of the song. Bland lyrics about wanting to be by someone’s side and never separated from them don’t do the song any favors. It’s passably enjoyable on a surface level, but it falls apart as soon as you examine any aspect of it more closely.
5. Ice on the Dune
The title track doesn’t fare a whole lot better in terms of standing out from the rest of the pack – there hasn’t been a whole lot of variance in tempo for these first four songs, and while this one fares slightly better than concert pitch due to a chorus hook that absolutely screams mushy romantic 80s revival, it also falls into the trap of being one of those title tracks that fails to explain what the heck the title is all about. Once again, Steele entertains fantasies of riding off into the sunset with a lover he can’t live without, and the invitation to elope and go off on some fantasy-land adventure sounds enticing enough, but it’s described with a vague analogy that honestly makes no sense: “Ooh, let’s go running away/We can always be together/Ooh, let’s go running away/We can last forever/Ooh, let’s go meet up again/Just like the ice on the dune.” That’s it. No explanation of how ice and sand dunes can co-exist. I’m sure it must happen in real life – deserts can get pretty cold in the winter, after all – but however those two opposing elements are intended to compare to these two lovers, the meaning is completely lost on the audience.
Finally, these guys change up the beat and give us a song worth noticing. There’s a teeny bit of hip-hop influence to the rhythm here – though it’s done in service of a straight-up pop song and the guys don’t actually try to rap to it (which is probably a good thing, because as hilariously weird as “Swordfish Hotkiss Night” was, that needed to be a one-off experiment and not a sound that the group should try to follow up on). The melody is a little slinkier here – good use of minor key, and probably the most interesting thing they’ve done in that department since “We Are the People”. As you’ve probably learned to expect by now, the lyrics are nothing fascinating, but Steele sings of a newfound innocence brought about by his lover in such a way that it’s easy enough to believe these thoughts are new to him. Sometimes it’s interestingly phrased (“Crystal sparks when I spotted you/Ricocheting colours in a cavalcade/Eye of the storm is a part of you/The Empire’s Sun, the eternal flame”), and sometimes it’s not (“I really wanna show you how/I’m loving you/In my life/In my life.”) He saved some of his best falsetto for what ultimately turns out to be a rather banal chorus. This is the sort of internal conflict I have to struggle with in nearly every song these guys put out.
7. I’ll Be Around
The album hits its lowest point at the dead center – at this point I’m longing for something sonically distinct to shake up an album that’s been sticking a little closer to the mainstream pop playbook than they did last time around, but instead they hit me with this gloppy love ballad. I expect saccharine love songs from these guys, but usually they’re at least sonically interesting. This one just sort of drifts on by like your average keyboard-driven mid-tempo track from the 80s. Littlemore’s synths, while still prominent, have more of a lo-wkey melody than usual, and it’s because the guys aren’t really aiming for “over the top” that they sort of end up right smack in the middle of the road here. It’s not as embarrassing as their few flops on the last album, but it sure seems lackadaisical when, after all of the declarations of wanting to run away together and carve out a legend for of two lovers that will be remembered for all eternity, the best promise Steele can muster here is, “So I’ve made up my mind, I’ll be around for a while.” Not exactly a declaration of undying love, despite the syrupy sweet instrumentation seeming to call for that. it basically amounts to, “I have no plans for the next couple weeks, so sure, I still love you for now.” It gets worse in the bridge, when he declares in his dopiest tone of voice, “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride/Let your inner mystic unravel tonight.” See, these guys are all about fantasy and wish fulfillment, so I really don’t think they understand the maxim they’ve quoted here. The point is to say that mere wishes rarely come true. Since the dreamy atmosphere in this song seems so detached from any notion of hard work or even definitively declaring that you want something forever and ever, it seems like an odd sentiment to throw in. I’m probably overanalyzing, but that just underscores my point that these guys’ lyrics don’t lend themselves well to deeper exploration.
8. Old Flavours
Well, I can’t complain about too much on the lyrics side of things here, because there are hardly any of them. This one’s a straight-up club tune, only bringing in a simple lyrical refrain a few minutes into the song, and even then, it’d faded back a bit behind the shimmering curtains of synth and the throbbing dance beats. Daft Punk gets away with this sort of thing, so hey, why not? And while it’s not a particularly bedazzling instrumental, the repeating synth melody is more than adequate to get bodies moving and to get stuck in the heads of everyone dancing. The texture and the various echoes and vocal effects are fun, even if some of it seems like a base hit where they could have gone for a home run.
If that last track started to make you feel like you were at a rave party or something, then this one will zoom in on that feeling and thrown in a side of New-Agey wedding reception. That’s the best explanation I can come up with for the highly Auto-tuned vocals (which I’ll give them a pass on – it’s more for the robotic effect it creates than to cover any sort of vocal definiciency, because Steele might have an odd voice, but he’s always on key), and the unbelieveably corny refrain oh “We celebrate, we celebrate our love/Ohhhh, we celebrate our love.” The power of this bond between human hearts may as well be enough to save the world, since the song is full of pretty notions like, “Just love someone more than yourself/Give yourself away”. It’s a nice enough sentiment. I can’t say that I’m bothered by it or even that it’s unrealistic. I’m all for making the world a nicer place by letting people love each other as much as they freakin’ want to. But at this point, all of the vague love stuff is starting to make me wonder whether the guys have really figured out the best way to tie their lightweight songwriting into the deeper mythology that seems to propel all of the costuming and imagery seen in their photoshoots and music videos and live shows. I wish they wrote love songs like these with the same attention for detail. That way there’d be some depth to keep me coming back to the party.
10. Surround Sound
An abrupt ending to the previous track takes us into an echoey, attention-grabbing intro, with an upbeat, syncopated rhythm (finally, something other than straight-up four on the floor!), and some highly distorted talkbox effects that just ooze coolness. or at least, they would have oozed coolness in the 80s. I can think back and pretend that I’m hearing this as a kid and that it was like music coming from outer space, never having heard anything that synthesized before. For me, this is the second most addictive song on the album after “DNA” (yes, it even beats out “Alive”), though the hook comes more from the beat and the verse melody than the chorus – which I honestly didn’t even understand until I looked up the lyrics just now. (“There’s this sound now/Follows us around”? Seriously, that’s what they’re singing?) The lyrics read like the instructions to some metaphysical meditation exercise, with such amusing nonsense as “Let’s push through four dimensions/’Til our brains turn to jelly/Meditate with no thinking/Eternally”. Thankfully, I don’t need to take a huge puff of some hallucinogenic substance in order to enjoy this song, even if I probably would in order to make sense of it. It’s brainless, but it’s breathtaking.
One final up-tempo dance number, galloping toward the finish line, reminds me a lot of what the first album did with “Tiger by My Side”. That song was a lot of fun, despite how silly the lyrics were (and it was written for one of the guys’ daughters, so that made sense). This one plays it a little safer, throwing in a bit of disco influence and singing the praises of music and its apparent power to hold off violent influences. Maybe in the fantasy land these guys have envisioned, where all of their outlandish music videos are set, music actually functions as a defensive weapon, and getting out on that brightly lit floor with all of the squares changing colors as you strut your stuff is what will prevent World War Three. I don’t mind the nonsense when I can at least track with some small aspect of the “story”, assuming there even is one. This one seems designed for crowd participation (dancing to a bedazzling light show more so than singing), and it’s probably destined to be a concert highlight, and I do enjoy the mix of 70s and 80s sounds they’ve got going on here.
12. Keep a Watch
The album’s grand finale is a bit of a doozy. This isn’t too much of a surprise, given how much of a cheesefest the previous album’s “Without You” was, but that one was also strangely restrained, whereas this one starts out as a tearful ballad and then works its way up into a ridiculous amount of religious fervor. With the sort of melodrama that would make that Boy George impersonator from The Wedding Singer proud, Steele declares that he’ll always be watching and caring for the woman he loves, with a godlike amount of devotion. At least the lyrics are more resolute here than “I’ll Be Around”. But the vocal performance is just… yeesh. Remember how funny he sounded when he awkwardly landed on the word “Babe” in the chorus of “Without You”? I swear, he sings the entire song like this, making me wonder if it’s just an accent thing or if he’s intentionally trying to play up the “Fatalistic Brit” affectation as strongly as possible. The result is unintentional humor, and I feel sort of bad for laughing at it when they’re clearly trying as hard as they can to bring some weight to it with its epic, slow synth solo and the Gospel-tinged female vocals that come in near the end. There’s no ironic intent to it, and it takes either a lot of courage or a lot of naivete – maybe both – to record something like this these days.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Concert Pitch $.50
Ice on the Dune $.75
I’ll Be Around $0
Old Flavours $1
Surround Sound $1.50
Keep a Watch $.25
Luke Steele: Lead vocals, guitar, keyboards
Nick Littlemore: Synthesizer, production
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.