Jake Robinson: The Empire Strikes Back! Empire of the Sun Is “Alive”

Posted on May 1, 2013

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Empire of the Sun’s new single “Alive” debut on the radio earlier recently, which stirred many thoughts and emotions for my good self. Early on the release day, I had heard the announcement of its incumbent premiere on triple J and diligently spent my afternoon glued to the radio.

The anticipation of a music premiere is something that happens very rarely nowadays. The organized structure of physical distribution has been if not vanquished, then forever diluted by the power of the internet. With the dilution of physical release there is 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 all together anymore. Digital music is 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.

Enter the Empire of the Sun wonderland that is "Alive".

Enter the Empire of the Sun wonderland that is “Alive”.

The communal experience of listening has declined for recorded music and has been perhaps compensated by the insatiable demand for live music, including the incredible expansion of the festival circuit. I feel immensely jealous of the 4000 lucky people who will be at the show in Wee Waa to hear the new Daft Punk album. It is this joint experience that on some level I believe fascinates us with music and much of popular culture; whether it be 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 was about as close as I have felt to having a sense of eager wonder at what might happen throughout the song, and to knowing that somewhere thousands of other people were experiencing the same thoughts.

It also became a flashback moment to when I heard Empire of the Sun’s 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 that I’ve been instantly floored by a piece of pop music.

Empire of the Sun initially seemed like one of the most unlikely collaborations ever, which was thrown together 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 ARIAs, while its follow-up was hailed as a flawed masterpiece, likened to the aural bravura of Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. On the other hand Nick Littlemore was one half of Sydney electro-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 comparison is Silverchair’s last album Young Modern, released in 2006, in which Daniel Johns co-wrote half the album with The Preset’s Julian Hamilton (including the smash hit single “Straight Lines”). The previously unlikely fusion of alternative rock with dance had begun—of interest also appearing on the album was Luke Steele playing slide guitar. The following year, the true precursor was on PNAU’s eponymous album, the opening track “With You Forever” featured the vocal stylings of one Mr. Steele. This was the seed from whence Empire of the Sun sprung.

However, even if you knew about these beforehand the pairing still 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 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 if 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 nightclub speakers the world over. They are one of the few Aussie ambassadors, at least to my ears, that represent in the foreign nightclub terrains.

And so all of this 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 Steele 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 al 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 and uncomplicated 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.

Jake Robinson is You’re Dripping Egg’s music columnist. His fortnightly column, Stereo In A Forest, premieres every second Wednesday. 

Is “Alive” almost as good as “Walking on a Dream”? Sing out in the comments.

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