Kevin Smith has a pretty great Superman story. It’s a tale of Hollywood incompetence and the telling is even better than the details, proof positive that Smith’s true strengths lie behind a microphone and not a camera. One such detail, ultimately lost to the overall arc, is both amusing and depressing as Smith recalls that he was offered the opportunity, nay the honour, of directing Beetlejuice 2: Beetlejuice Goes Hawaiian. As Smith remarks; “Didn’t we say all we needed to say with the first Beetlejuice? Must we go tropical?”. The latter is a good line but the former rings with truth. Sometimes, the well goes dry early and that’s that.
Or at least it should be. Empire of the Sun, back to reclaim their synth-pop throne in an era where synth-pop is king, could be forgiven for sticking so rigidly to formula if the results at least matched previous heights. ‘Walking on a Dream’ and ‘We are the People’ may not have been ‘Get Lucky’-sized smashes, but they prompted the repeat button on Summer Playlist ’08. ‘Standing on the Shore’ and a revamped ‘Without You’ (smart move – the original version found on Walking on a Dream is horrendous) kept heads above water before Emperor Steele and Lord Littlemore quietly slipped away, seemingly lost along with the likes of Iglu & Hartly*, Flobots et al.
Only, we’re not through yet, the Australian duo convinced that they still have much to say, except, well, they don’t really, as Ice on the Dune proves quickly and often. ‘Lux’ is a curious intro, all gothic strangeness and unconventional promise that its record never quite delivers upon. It’s like the opening credits of a 1980s Tim Burton movie spliced with a Final Fantasy soundtrack. It’s also completely unconnected to everything that follows. ‘DNA’ is a decent stab at recapturing former glories that flirts with but thankfully refrains from going full Calvin Harris (never go full Calvin Harris) yet lacks that much-needed killer hook. Lead single ‘Alive’ runs afoul of similar issues, its buoyant chorus more suited to a YouTube highlight reel than anything else. Cut from the same cloth, ‘Concert Pitch’ and the title track are perfectly pleasant but little more than that.
To give Ice on the Dune credit, there’s nothing on here that comes anywhere close to the same car crash territory of the aforementioned ‘Without You’ and ‘Delta Bay’. This is a lean record that gets to the point very quickly. It’s just that the point isn’t all that interesting. ‘Celebrate’ comes loaded with one of the more obnoxious refrains you’ll hear all year and it’s only that teeth-grinding yelp that sets it apart from a bunch of identikit numbers. This, frankly, is not a good enough distinction. It is only when the sun begins to set that Empire of the Sun offer a glimpse into what a more experimental outing may have yielded. ‘Keep a Watch’ is a surprisingly compelling little space oddity, the kind of thing they’ve tried before and missed by a mile. Here, they nail it, the moment earned and poignant even as it goes, knowingly, right off the deep end. A shame, then, that its ambitions aren’t met elsewhere.
*’In This City’ was and is amazing, admit it.