It’s been a while since we heard from Pnau – though Nick Littlemore and Peter Mayes have enjoyed even greater success of late on their side project with Luke Steele, Empire Of The Sun. The two monikers are pretty much interchangeable, and stand for breezy electro pop with upfront beats and big choruses.
Their fourth album Soft Universe sees little reason to dispense with that formula, and in doing so reminds its Northern Hemisphere listeners that summer is just around the corner. That particular season has already been and gone in their native Australia of course, but in a cunning move the duo had that covered too – and released the album towards the end of July last year.
Littlemore and Mayes are excellent songwriters, they know how to hang a whole song off a catchy chorus that might start off as something a little inconsequential, but on the third or fourth listen burns a path directly to its listener’s heart. Many of the 10 songs here do just that, and get verses to match, offering up a sentiment or lyrical couplet worth remembering. Unite Us is a cracking example, a call to arms that offers a strong way forward.
The principal criticism that could be levelled at Soft Universe is that it does not have the endearing weirdness of previous Pnau and Empire releases, becoming more predictable as it progresses. The harmonies are by and large conventional – save for an endearing change towards the end of the chorus in Twist Of Fate – and the instrumentation tends to be straight down the middle synths, guitars and danceable beats. Everybody, for instance, has the slight wistfulness that characterises the duo’s best music, but it sounds oddly comfortable for them. Glimpse is a ballad whose bassline brings back memories of Berlin‘s Take My Breath Away – but without the killer chorus.
These traits unwittingly lead them towards middle of the road territory occupied by the excellent songwriting but comfortable textures of Fleetwood Mac. No offence there, of course, but when Solid Ground starts off like it might turn in to Dreams, the parallel gets sharper and the writing feels less imaginative. Thankfully Littlemore and Mayes get themselves out of this by producing the sort of anthemic chorus we know they are capable. “There’s too much we’re living for baby” is a cracking line to belt out when getting ready to go out.
It is moments like these that save them from mundanity – but fans will undoubtedly wish for something more cosmic and a little less earthbound in future moments, especially as this album tails off towards the end. They can afford to be fussy with the talent Littlemore and Mayes have, as the musical chemistry still clearly works – but would be welcome in songs that flex their muscles a little more.