Less than two weeks ago, Empire of the Sun frontman, the Emperor Luke Steele, strongly hinted at the possibility of his original band releasing a new album in the near future. Even for the most devoted fans of his more folksy freshman outfit, the Sleepy Jackson, it would be easy to forget that Steele was once a member of the modest, Perth music scene. After all, these days Steele prefers to strut around in extravagant costumes as one-half of synthpop duo, Empire of the Sun. Theirs has been a colorful journey to superstardom, with their popularly lauded 2008 record, Walking on a Dream marking a turning point in the career of Luke Steele. Steele was a humble Perth boy no longer. Now, he was taking the world by storm with his bizarre musical antics.
Now, in 2016, we’re left longing for a Sleepy Jackson album and the creativity which it may bring, more than ever, as Empire of the Sun’s latest release sounds like the work of a band who have lost inspiration. Throughout their career, Empire of the Sun’s insistent nostalgia for 1980s sounds has divided critics. At best, they’ve been heralded as sparking revived interest in classic sounds. At worst, they’ve been branded lazy and reluctant. While their third album could have been a chance to silence critics once and for all, it feels as if Two Vines is a step in the other direction, acting as confirmation of suspicions that some already had of the duo.
Before continuing on this already rather cynical trajectory, it’s necessary to remind ourselves of one thing. Despite its flaws, Two Vines does consistently fulfill its rudimentary purpose of providing danceable club hits. The duo’s music, as it has been throughout their career, is hook-driven and synth-based. When the hooks are good, Empire of the Sun are among the most energetic music duos going around. The hooks on “There’s No Need” and “High and Low” for instance, are certainly strong moments on the album, as the pair show they can still get the kids dancing with ease.
For those looking for more than just dance music, however, this album will fall short, due in no small part to it staggering lack of variation. As listeners, we struggle to find variation on the duo’s synth-based game plan, default tempo settings or general ambiance. For the sake of the exercise, skip to halfway in each track for the first seven or so tracks to see what I mean.
Invariably, tracks start at a moderate level of energy before building up to wistfully clubby choruses and then peter out slightly. The once eccentric “look” of the group now seems to be unwarranted, as Empire of the Sun lack the creativity or differentiation from other artists needed to be able to pull off such a charade.
On that note, the band seem at times to have forgotten who they are. Where Luke Steele’s voice is at its most powerful when endearingly coarse and nasal, there are moments when the band make the bizarre decision to Auto-Tune it, rendering it generic. “There’s No Need” manifests this idea in both its title and vocal alteration techniques. There’s simply no need to autotune here. Decisions like this do no favors for the band, as we struggle to buy into the more emotive portions of the album when we feel as if we’re being taken for granted as listeners in the uninspired technical choices being made.
Ironically, the deluxe edition’s bonus tracks represent the most variety that the record has to offer. Extending another three tracks, the slower “Keystone” and the fluid “Lend Me Some Light” provide a mild breath of fresh air here. By this time, however, listeners may have lost patience with Empire of the Sun. In short, the album’s flaws aren’t insulting so much as disappointing. This undeniable team of champions has come up short of inspiration on Two Vines, as we’re left to wait and see if Steele can produce something with a bit more spark should the Sleepy Jackson awake from slumber.