Empire Of The Sun – ‘Ice On The Dune’

The futuristic costumes and fairytale theatrics can’t disguise the basic four-to-the-floor pop on the Sydney duo’s second album

Luke Steele’s career has rarely made much sense. Even when the Australian was in The Sleepy Jackson he’d sing about wearing miniskirts into town, priests with sewn-up eyes and Satan trespassing in his back garden. In interviews he’d go on about his songs being surfboards he rides into the ether to kiss God’s balls, or some such hallucinogenic crazy-talk. So when The Sleepy Jackson went on hiatus in 2007 and Steele re-emerged dolled up like a 28th century shamanic wizard from Planet Whiteyes as the Emperor with Empire Of The Sun – alongside Pnau’s Nick Littlemore, aka The Prophet, decked out in wolfskin waistcoats like a feral, space-age Wolverine – it actually seemed like a natural progression. Album one, ‘Walking On A Dream’, came in 2008. And it was good.

For album number two, there’s a bullshit Zelda-style backstory. One that asks: has an evil force for darkness stolen the jewel from the Emperor’s crown, robbing him of his powers to guide rivers and direct rain, demolishing his temple and casting his four animal spirit priests to the far corners of Earth? How can we track down this wicked King Of Shadows, defeat him in worthy battle, reclaim the jewel and save the world? Okaaaaay.

The problem is, when you project a futuristic, magical and otherworldly image, you’d better have the sounds to match. And unfortunately, ‘Ice On The Dune’ is a four-to-the-floor electro-pop album that has literally nothing to do with the cheesy fable invented to go with it. After a mood-building cinematic splurge of an intro called ‘Lux’, EOTS’s attempt at a theme to The Mummy, it’s straight into 11 repetitive bursts of whoomp-laden chart pop pitched firmly between Calvin Harris and Wiley’s ‘Heatwave’, every track crying out to be used on a Coke advert. When they’re not recreating the shimmery synth sheen of a million Molly Ringwald roller-skating scenes for the dubstep era (‘Concert Pitch’, ‘Awakening’, ‘Old Flavours’) they’re hooking their unicorn-skin space-boots to the bandwagon of acts ripping off Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Everywhere’ (the reverb-swamped ballad ‘I’ll Be Around’). It smacks of La Roux and Ladyhawke, of 2009 trying to be 1984. The last thing a 28th century shamanic wizard should sound is dated. Let alone double-dated.

‘Ice On The Dune’’s saving grace is Steele’s airy falsetto, occasionally adding cred to what is otherwise a spiked Bacardi Breezer of a record. On ‘Alive’, he’s joined by a schoolyard choir of the ilk that made Justice’s ‘DANCE’ so infectious, and his multi-tracked lilt helps ‘DNA’ boast a little of Daft Punk’s sizzling disco magic. The downside is that much of his lyrical oddness is buried in hiss and phase, with only vague romantic platitudes about running away, always being together and hearts never beating the same breaking through the overwhelming stench of Example. Despite the Day-Glo Ming The Merciless visuals, on radio Empire Of The Sun want to blend right in, spouting all the usual meaningless, anodyne pop chorus lines – there’s even Auto-Tune on ‘Celebrate’, for fuck’s sake. They build an expectation of fantasy weirdness, blazing originality and cosmic sonics, but give us an album so Fearne Cotton-friendly they might as well have called it ‘Shopping With Willoughby’.

And there’s the crux. Steele was far more outré, edgy and inspired when he was splashing alt.pop with his crazed poetic fancies with The Sleepy Jackson. In trying to reinvent himself as a Bowie-esque future-glam Pop Star, he’s been sucked into the sub-Gaga blandness of mainstream music, his aesthetic so costume-party comical it’s an unknowing pastiche that takes itself far more seriously than even he seems to realise. His once-intriguing eccentricity has become cartoonish desperation. At best, he’s making a comment on image-over-content pop-pap culture. At worst, he’s trying to crack a joke he doesn’t know is actually on him.

Mark Beaumont