No 421: Empire of the Sun

Twisted disco pop and divine madness today, as an early contender for 2009 album of the year struts gaudily into the ring

Hometown: Sydney

The lineup: Luke Steele, Nick Littlemore

The background: There have been a number of attempts by New Bands (of the day) over the last year to create MOR disco. Fleetwood Mac meets Chic? It's become a sort of Holy Grail. Empire of the Sun come closer than any we've heard to date. A Steely Dan or Air of a studio duo, they combine rhythmic elegance with the hi-tech sheen of 80s pop. And it's not just a theory that fails to work in practice: their songs, We Are the People, Standing on the Shore and the single and title track from their forthcoming album Walking on a Dream, are as sublimely crafted as anything we've heard all year. If Lindsey Buckingham joined forces with Daft Punk they might produce music as polished and perfect - for the bedroom, for the dancefloor - as this.

Their songs acknowledge the past without becoming retro exercises in pastiche. Of course they don't; they are contemporary productions with elements that evoke an era that never existed - because until recently the idea of a Balearic Fleetwood Mac didn't occur. Empire of the Sun make it all sound so effortless, their music moving with the insistent mid-tempo grace of the Mac in their Tango in the Night pomp, while the singers tweak their voices in the studio to get those pristine Christine McVie harmonies just right.

Despite the intelligence of the operation, however, it doesn't feel cold or sterile. On the contrary, the chord sequences and vocal melodies seem to have been designed for maximum emotional impact. As for the lead singer, the phrase "controlled under-emoting" occurs; he holds back in a series of restrained performances that give the impression he's hiding his pain over a relationship turned sour behind layers of sumptuous sonics. Because he knows that the song is greater than the sum of the parts.

But hold on - we recognise that voice. And no wonder: it belongs to Luke Steele, the brilliant but underrated singer and songwriter with Australia's The Sleepy Jackson, whose two albums (2003's Lovers and 2006's Personality: One Was a Spider, One Was a Bird) earned them critical respect but not the widespread attention they deserved. He made a further attempt to widen his appeal last year when he teamed up with Nick Littlemore (formerly one half of Teenager with Ladyhawke's Pip Brown and more recently one half of popular Australian electro duo Pnau) for a fantastic techno tune called With You Forever. It served as a prototype for the fiction romances Steele and Littlemore have produced as Empire of the Sun, having bonded over a mutual love of Alejandro Jodorowsky's avant-garde 1973 masterpiece, The Holy Mountain, in which a Christ-like character "withdraws from society with a flock of disciples to quest for eternal life".

Not for nothing have they never referred to Steele and Littlemore as the Noel and Liam of Aussietronic pop. If there's any remaining doubt about this duo's arty credentials, they shot the video for Walking on a Dream in Shanghai in lavish Technicolor, like a dazzlingly gaudy miniclip from the Spielberg extravaganza from which they take their name. We hear from a good source that Empire of the Sun's album will include future-funk workouts to shame Prince and symphonic ballads to make Brian Wilson weep. We always suspected that Steele was a major, if eccentric, talent - just wait till you see what these boys consider normal daywear. Now, finally, with Empire of the Sun, he has found the ideal vehicle for his twisted disco pop, his divine madness.

The buzz: "It's the sound of two professionals geeking out on writing perfect pop songs."

The truth: If it's as good as the tracks we've heard, then ladies and gentlemen we already have a contender for 2009 album of the year.

Most likely to: Seduce and destroy

Least likely to: Become coke-addled millionaires

What to buy: Walking on a Dream - the single and album - are released by Virgin in early 2009

File next to: Phoenix, Tahiti 80, Fleetwood Mac, Studio

Links: Extracts from the single

Monday's new band: Dan Black


Paul Lester

The GuardianTramp

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