Pop music needs colourful bands like Empire Of The Sun. In the age of social media and all things intrusive, Luke Steele and Nick Littlemore retain a welcome air of mystique. Their colourful, flamboyant costumes, theatrical live shows and songs with lyrics that are often cryptic and at best unclear all add to their elusive nature.
Happily third album Two Vines won’t change that perception, and sees little reason for deviating from the tried and tested formula that has served the band so well so far. To that end it trains its rose-tinted spectacles once again on the music of the 1970s and 1980s.
There are slight differences however. Two Vines is a concept album, telling the tale of a modern city reclaimed by the green jungle, a popular topic of late that John Foxx and Cassius have explored in very different ways. It is a nice twist on the stock environmental message, a kind of Green Party fantasy where pollution and greed are overtaken by a comeback of pure nature.
To communicate their thoughts Steele and Littlemore use layers and layers of lush production, as though evoking a rain forest in sound, taking over everything in its sight. Unfortunately these layers also succeed in bringing the claustrophobic nature of the rain forest through to the listener. It is a far from unpleasant experience, the lush textures beautifully and carefully created so that the soaring choruses carry maximum impact, but it is on occasion difficult to see the light above, so dense is the vegetation within.
Most of the songs have massed banks of synthesizers, so much so that guest slots from Fleetwood Mac’s Lindsey Buckingham, long-time Prince cohort Wendy Melvoin and two band members from David Bowie’s Blackstar, Henry Hey and Tim Lefebvre, get absorbed into the overall sound rather than standing out.
Unfortunately in addition to this there are few immediately memorable tunes, and certainly nothing to rival previous high points such as Walking On A Dream or We Are The People. That is not to say Empire Of The Sun should seek this achievement album after album, but the feeling that persists during Two Vines is one that suspects their inspiration is not quite at the top of its game.
The case for the defence would argue that High And Low has a good chorus, with sentiments sure to resound on today’s listener. “Let’s get together and forget all our troubles and just flow” is the escapist lyric, an enticing proposition in the age of Trump and Brexit. There’s No Need has a nice, cool backdrop that precedes a warm, sunny-day song, while Before has an aching nostalgia. First Crush, meanwhile, vividly creates a rose-tinted vision of that initial, exciting foray into the unknown.
And yet, at the risk of sounding like a cracked record, these pluses aren’t enough to make a vintage Empire Of The Sun album. Beautifully produced it may be, but Two Vines is essentially an over polished collection of songs with less spontaneity in their composition. Doubtless they will work well in the live environment, and through this may well in time become growers, convincing your reviewer otherwise. For now, the past glories remain their biggest calling cards.