By Arye Dworken
It’s hard to approach Empire of the Sun‘s debut album (Walking On a Dream, out now on Astralwerks) seriously. For one, there’s the ridiculous record cover. Yet Luke Steele of the criminally underrated Sleepy Jackson and Nick Littlemore–one-half of Teenager (with Ladyhawke) and Australia’s other love-or-hate electro-pop duo, Pnau–have crafted a rather serious pop masterpiece…one that seems destined to fail in North America.
Do a little research on the band and you’ll find that journalists have approached the duo with nothing but cynicism and assumptions of irony, such as this exchange:
You must understand the sceptics, though. I mean, the way you present this project, visually, isn’t in keeping with the notion of authenticity:
Nick Littlemore: We’re happy people, and that comes through on the record. But there have been acts throughout time that have done these sort of projects, for whatever reason, and they can be for the greater good of the world. And that’s what we’re about.
And that is the great motivator behind Walking On A Dream–Steele and Littlemore are shiny happy people and they want to make shiny happy music. If everything were that simple.
But even if you’re resistant to their mission statement, it’s hard to imagine two musicians with nearly a decade of documented experience treating an entire record as an elaborate joke. Instead, the 11 tracks on their debut are driven by lush, speaker-enveloping synths and saccharine hooks. “Half Mast” is a pulsating dance track, tenderized by Steele’s falsetto, which admits in the chorus, “oh, oh, oh, honey I need you around, I know.” Sure, it’s a cheesy moment, but inherently winning if you give into it. The newly released single “We Are The People” starts off with a lazily-strummed acoustic guitar and builds progressively with a steady bass until the synths take over. This is when Steele finds the confidence to proclaim “we are the people who rule the world.” The catchiness of the chorus makes the claim plausible.
Ultimately, Empire of the Sun’s pop ambitions aren’t all that different from MGMT’s Oracular Spectacular; except Steele and Littlemore embrace the inherent flamboyance of pop music, and MGMT celebrates it coyly with a great deal of restraint. That approach has earned them mainstream success and the overwhelming approval of hipsters–a perplexing balancing act, for sure. However, while Brooklyn’s biggest rising stars are caught in magazine layouts with their shirts off, Empire of the Sun are putting on makeup and Mayan head dresses, creating an elaborate and imaginitive world of ridiculousness. Not because it will gain them the attention of adoring fans or the finger-pointing sneers of skeptics, but because they can.