Album Reviews

Luke Steele – Listen To The Water

(EMI) UK release date: 13 May 2022

A meaningful piece of work that reveals a new dimension to the Empire Of The Sun frontman’s musical and emotional thinking

Luke Steele - Listen To The Water In the course of their career, Empire Of The Sun have never been known for their restraint. With lavish live shows, flamboyant costumes and richly produced songs, they have rarely left their fans wanting more – apart from the scarcity of their album releases. It comes as something of a surprise, then, to report that the duo’s principal vocalist Luke Steele has made a solo album with little more than a guitar for company.

The roots for this new record, Listen To The Water, lie in his recent family move to an outlying Californian ranch. Rather than inspire music of even greater scope, the wide-open spaces appear to have honed his musical thinking and fostered a ‘less is more’ approach. No doubt lockdown conditions have also contributed to his awareness of the quieter spaces around him.

This means that anybody expecting an arena-rousing anthem in the form of We Are The People will need to look elsewhere, but not yet – they should stay for a set of fine songs that respond extremely well to the ‘unplugged’ treatment. Steele’s restraint is notable, but it is easier to track the emotional input of his vocal without the cushioned production he has previously enjoyed. The distinctive nasal tones remain, but now sit front and centre, and he can now be more fully appreciated as a vocalist.

Common Man is a good example of the new approach. A woozy, pastoral song, it has a quite heavily processed vocal but leaves a lasting impression. Two Of Us is animated, with a sharp vocal performance and convincing chorus. The contrast with the layered harmonies softer colours of Get Out Now is marked, but here Steele’s confession will stop the listener in their tracks. “My heart is breaking as it’s torn apart,” he sings. “All of this used to be fun, but now I’m running away.”

It is a striking change to previous Steele couplets. Whereas Empire Of The Sun lyrics were often difficult to decipher, and sometimes purposely elusive, his own are direct and immediately meaningful. “Why does the clock stop ticking, only when you have serious depression. Can we speed it up when you’re down?” asks the title track.

The instruments are thoughtfully used, with a lovely combination of slide guitar and falsetto on Gladiator. The frank vocal of Keep On Trying takes place over woozy thoughts from the guitars, whose descriptive asides could be interpreted as exclamations of pain. Steele’s production tinkers with the stereo perception where the vocals are layered, often giving the impression of a fever dream, or a form of musical insomnia. Occasionally this threatens the message of the lyrics, but more often than not a thoughtful approach is in place. Even Bullet Train, the woolly instrumental epilogue, is laden with feeling.

Understated it may be, but Listen To The Water is a meaningful piece of work, revealing a new dimension to Luke Steele’s musical and emotional thinking. It is an excellent complement to his previous work, and hints at music to come of even greater feeling and insight. Recommended.

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Luke Steele – Listen To The Water