Empire of the Sun’s new single ‘Alive’ debut on the radio earlier this week, stirred many thoughts and emotions. I had heard about its premiere on Triple J earlier in the day and diligently spent my afternoon glued to the radio.
The anticipation and buildup to a music premiere is something which happens very rarely nowadays. The organized structure of physical distribution has been if not vanquished, then forever diluted by the power of the internet and with it also a disappearing sense of community. Not many people spend a night waiting outside a record store to buy a new LP, or sit around and listen to it altogether anymore. Album leaks have become so routine that it is now the norm rather than the exception to hear an album before its official release date. Digital music has made listening to music a much more routine experience and usually people will hear new songs either by accident, in passing on the radio, or perhaps recommended on via blog such as this one.
The communal experience of listening has declined and has been perhaps compensated by the insatiable demand for live music and the incredible expansion of the festival circuit. I feel immensely jealous of the 4000 lucky people who will be at the Wee Waa Show to hear the new Daft Punk album. It is this joint experience which on some level I believe fascinates us with music and much of popular culture; with viewing parties for the latest episode of Game of Thrones or seeing a film in its natural habitat at the cinema.
Listening to ‘Alive’ floating out of the car stereo war about as close in our modern world as I have felt to having a sense of eager wonder at what might happen and knowing that somewhere thousand of other people were experiencing the same thoughts.
It also became a flashback moment to when I heard their first ever song, ‘Walking on a Dream’. While this song now may feel like an eternal fragment of the musical establishment, the first time I heard it I was completely blown away. It is one of the few times I’ve been instantly floored by a piece of pop music.
Empire of the Sun seemed initially like one of the most unlikely collaborations ever, thrown together almost as an afterthought by two prominent musicians. Luke Steele was the Perth based indie darling and the eccentric mastermind behind The Sleepy Jackson. The Sleepy Jackson’s first album had earned considerable love throughout the alternative music scene and was nominated for several ARIA’s while its follow-up was hailed as a masterpiece (albeit fslightly flawed) and likened to the aural bravura of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. Nick Littlemore on the other hand was one half of Sydney elector pop duo, PNAU, who had been taken under the wing of Elton John.
However, the grounds for Empire of the Sun had already been sown. An interesting precursor is Silverchair’s last album Young Modern, released in 2006, in which Daniel Johns co-wrote half the album (including the smash hit single ‘Straight Lines’) with The Presets’ Julian Hamilton, while also appearing on the album was Luke Steele playing slide guitar. The previously unlikely fusion of alternative rock with dance had begun earlier with Johns collaborations with Peter Mac (The Dissociatives) but this was where it reached the mainstream consciousness. The following year PNAU released their eponymous album wand featuring on the opening track ‘With You Forever’ was the vocal stylings of one Mr. Steele. This was the seed from whence Empire of the Sun sprung.
Even if you knew about these beforehand the pairing seemed unlikely on the face of it. But as soon as you began to dig deeper it became more obvious. Both share an eccentric, nostalgic dreamlike view of writing pop songs and wrapping them up in often bizarre theatrics.
It’s sometimes unclear exactly how serious Steele and Littlemore were about Empire of the Sun, in fact they never initially planned to tour. After the runaway success of ‘Walking on a Dream’ and ‘We are the People’ they were showered with cash to appear at festivals across the land; offers they were unable to refuse. However, Littlemore didn’t seem as inclined to fill his pockets and went AWOL, figuratively disappearing. This left Steele to carry the burden on his own, visually demonstrated by his solo appearances in all but the initial two videos.
I first heard ‘Walking on A Dream’ on October 4th 2008, watching the music video on YouTube while preparing for a university ball. I was blown away not only by the incredible visual element of the video, but the elegiac simplicity of the song. Just a few chords, a few spluttering beats some wonderfully soft vocal melodies drifting in and out, as in a trance. The video captures the ethereal nature of the song, the stark wonder of finding yourself in a brilliant new place full of possibilities. It was a difficult time in my own personal life and the song chimed with what I believed was the opening of a new era. ‘Walking on a Dream’ rose to become a massive international hit and even today you will hear it spilling out of night club speakers the world over. They are one of the few Aussie ambassadors, at least to my ears, that represent prominently in the foreign night land club terrains.
And so all of this, somewhere was lying at the back of my mind when I heard ‘Alive’ for the first time. I don’t think I ever really expected it to have as great an impact on me as ‘Walking on a Dream’ did, but by doing so I was perhaps able to relive the ghosts of a time past.
And now to the song itself.
Littlemore and Steel do have a thematically different approach in their songwriting endeavors. Steele’s songs are usually filled with aspects of uncertainty, whether it is in a personal relationship or higher question of spirituality. Songs such as ‘Good Dancers’, ‘Vampire Racecourse’, ‘Miles Away’, ‘How Was I Supposed to Know’ or ‘Without You’ are all linked by a personal awareness of fragility and uncertainty. Littlemore displays a much more universal and idealistic approach; ‘Embrace’, ‘Come Together’, ‘With You Forever’ and ‘Unite Us’ are all songs which identify with a notion of all-consuming, uncomplicated and predestined love.
The consummation of these two approaches can perhaps be surmised by ‘Walking on a Dream’, the Steele sung verses filled with uncertainty (Walking on a Dream/ how can I explain?/talking to myself/ will I see again?) while Littlemore’s chorus is “I can feel it/ when two people become one”.
‘Alive’ is certainly towards the Littlemore end of the spectrum. The shout out verses and one bar on/one bar off drum syncopation is heavily reminiscent of PNAU’s ‘Baby’ while the egalitarian idealism of the lyrics is also trademark Littlemore. The chorus hook is an earworm that I have found unable to dislodge ever since it crawled its way up there.
While ‘Alive’ may not be the instant classic that ‘Walking on a Dream; was, it certainly renewed my fascination with Australia’s most unlikely dance pop duo.