EMPIRE OF THE SUN is the new psychedelic project led by Australians Luke Steele (of The Sleepy Jackson) and Nick Littlemore (P'Nau). Exotic, gaudy, and lavish, Empire Of The Sun brings together these two unlikely collaborators from Australian pop, and so began a friendship which Luke describes as "this fireball of electricity". Walking On A Dream is a bold, visionary and brilliant album, which manages to sound exhilaratingly contemporary, audaciously forward-looking, yet also curiously archaic all at once. From Nick and Luke's collective unconscious arose a rare marriage of rock and electronica, immediacy and depth, futurism and tradition, hi-tech production and creative spontaneity, pop melody and the cinematic. The duo are preparing to carry through on their audio-visual vision for their band, demonstrated by the video for the first single and title track, filmed in Shanghai and getting massive online attention (done renegade style, it's illegal to film there and at one point they nearly got arrested). Given the unusual track records of both the band's constituent members - not to mention the jaw-dropping magnificence of their debut album together - it's safe to say, in the words of NME... "world domination quite literally awaits".
Anyone who calls Australia's Empire of the Sun an unlikely collaboration needs a lesson in aplomb. In fact, it's tough by now to be surprised by much of anything these guys do. Luke Steele of the high concept pysch-pop outfit Sleepy Jackson and Nick Littlemore of dance duo Pnau, while taking divergent paths to Down Under pop stardom, are essentially kindred spirits bound by flamboyance and an odd idealism. Inspired by untold numbers of late nights and acid trips, at their indulgent best they strike a trenchant middle ground between fantasy and historical revisionism. Steele's big orchestras and Littlemore's whiz-bang saccharine samples both aspire to a grand sense of scale. A hundred bucks says each of these guys had a psychedelic 1970s country-disco epic on his back-burner anyway.
The title track, with its clubby beat and falsetto hook, seems like the kind of hit Steele has always wanted to write, but here he's found the right editor. Littlemore has evidently cleared a path for his partner, cutting through the relentless elaborations that adorned and perhaps encumbered the two Sleepy Jackson records. Steele may be his own worst enemy, his finger always poised at the ready on the overdub button at the chance of adding jangle to his overwrought jangle-pop. The addition of a co-composer has helped forge a bit of an uneasy truce in his frenzied psyche. Some cuts might even give rise to such simplistic fits of impulse as dancing.
Of course, let's not forget who we're talking about here. Luke Steele still effortlessly reminds everyone within earshot that he's really into himself. Like, really. He's the guy on the cover of the Sleepy Jackson's last record Personality as the bare-chested angel perched atop an Arctic ice field, austerely bearing in his arms the fetal, bare-chested figure of
himself. This delusion of grandeur manifesests itself on Walking's ridiculous cover, the epic spawn of Star Wars and "Zoobilee Zoo" raised straight out of promo poster hell. It seems a career spent in such indulgence can't just be streamlined overnight, because although Empire tries mightily, they collapse underneath too many ideas before the record is even half over. Same beast, new duds: instead of packing the arrangements with Personality's meaningless little fills, countermelodies, and interludes, the duo try their hand at genres they've apparently always wanted to do, like booty bass or yacht rock ballads. No wonder people buy individual tracks rather than full albums these days-- few buzzes die so abruptly as in the transition of the complex, ethereal melodies of "We Are the People" into the following cut "Delta Bay", which sounds like "Thriller" sung by cats.
If a metaphor could describe such an utterly puzzling sense of scale, it would surely fall somewhere in between throwing pasta at the wall and hunting the White Whale. Steele and Littlemore both seem incapable of diverging from their relentless quest for epic Meaning, but while some material is about as sublime and immediate as anything either has done, just as much crashes and burns. Thankfully, "Tiger by My Side" bulldozes the second-half wreckage with Station to Station swagger and a pounding, jammy Neu! beat. The song's impenetrable lyrics reference a fitting thematic menagerie of real and imagined beasts, and also may or may not have influenced the naming of Steele's six month old daughter Sunny Tiger, his first child with wife Snappy Dolphin. Seriously, you can't make this stuff up.
Mike Orme, December 2, 2008