Empire of the Sun are known for three things: creating album art and publicity photos so over the top they’re awesome, wearing flamboyant costumes at all times, and making some pretty good electronic music. For now, let’s focus on that last point. Empire of the Sun combines Luke Steele of alternative rock band the Sleepy Jackson with Nick Littlemore of dance group Pnau to create a fairly unconventional dynamic duo. Their 2008 debut Walking on a Dream arrived amidst a wave of other indie synthpop acts, including MGMT and Passion Pit, but Empire of the Sun managed to differentiate itself with a shameless devotion to 80s synthesizer jams and glam rock, all wrapped up in a garish theme. Singles like “Walking on a Dream” and “We are the People” gained significant airplay with their instant pop appeal, yet Walking on a Dream also contained tracks like the dreamlike instrumental piece “Country,” the Michael Jackson-reminiscent “Swordfish Hotkiss Night” and closing ballad “Without You.” Even without the band’s outlandish aesthetic, it was intriguing debut.
Five years later, Empire of the Sun released Ice on the Dune, which substituted the 80s nostalgia for a more contemporary style of dance music (or EDM as the kids call it). Almost every track contained the same pulsating beat and high intensity, making it a fun albeit exhausting album to experience in one sitting. There were undeniably catchy highlights like “DNA” and “Old Favours,” and even a couple softer songs like the great “I’ll Be Around,” yet its abandonment of subtlety sometimes resulted in a generic pop blur.
With this in mind, Two Vines attempts to marry the two distinct styles of its predecessors, with mixed results. It contains much of the same dance music energy that dominated nearly every track on Ice on the Dune, though it’s now occasionally mixed with softer edges and a throwback feel. The album feels like familiar territory for the band, and echoes of the band’s first two releases can be heard throughout.
Tracks that draw heavily from Ice on the Dune stick out as among the best on Two Vines, including lead single “High and Low.” With a pulsating beat and an explosive yet simple chorus that relies on a rhyme of “high and low” with “never let you go,” it’s pure pop radio bait like earlier single “Alive.” Similarly, “Friends” has a chorus similar to Ice on the Dune’s “Concert Pitch” and is equally as infectious. Littlemore’s experience making dance music with Pnau once again shines through on Two Vines, and you’re guaranteed to get a least one of its songs stuck in your head.
Elsewhere, several tracks on Two Vines are more evocative of Walking on a Dream, particularly in its softer moments. Opening track “Before” has a steady groove that never gets too intense and lyrics about a “blue wave crashing in the ocean” that give it an otherworldly feel, like their debut album’s title track. “First Crush” has warm synthesizer notes like those on “Half Mast” and equally lovelorn lyrics. Closing track “To Her Door” features Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham, and continues the band’s tradition of finishing each album on a slower note a’ la “Without You” and “Keep Watch.”
Although comparing new tracks to previous Empire of the Sun work may make Two Vines seem bland, the album’s weak points really emerge when attempting something more original that can’t be described using these points of reference. For instance, the title track starts with a moment of shuffling acoustic guitar before launching into a grinding synthesizer melody. This track also highlights how when Steele chooses to sing in his nasal tone (as opposed to falsetto or his semi-croon), it can sometimes be too much when brought to the forefront. On the flipside, “There’s No Need” has a slight R&B tinge with auto-tuned vocals that are sure to annoy some, but at least its chorus contains a refreshingly restrained vocal performance by Steele. The repetition of “together we can” on “Ride” becomes grating quite easily, and “Digital Life” seems far too straightforward for an Empire of the Sun song, never really building into anything.
Empire of the Sun have clearly found their niche in making albums that are as grandiose as their outfits, and Two Vines is certainly full of maximalist production and songs designed to get large audiences moving. It may not push too hard in many new directions, but the album’s strengths seem to show that this is perfectly fine for a band that has mastered the basic dance track. Attempts at breaking this mold on Two Vines are more a liability than an asset to the album, although the penultimate “ZZZ” has a Cut Copy-esque rhythm that is both new for the band and fits comfortably within their style. Two Vines is sure to have some moments that will delight anyone who enjoyed Empire of the Sun’s first two albums, but you may be less drawn to immerse yourself in the fantasy world they created this time around.