Regrets set to some fine electro-pop, but Pnau’s fourth misses many of its targets.
Tom Hocknell 2012
When Nick Littlemore went AWOL from Aussie duo Empire of the Sun in 2009, he left his bandmate Luke Steele befuddled as to what’d prompted such a sudden departure. "He’s just left me with the baby," remarked Steele, also of The Sleepy Jackson, as his phone calls went unreturned. Turns out that Littlemore had hidden himself away to pen material for a new Cirque du Soleil soundtrack, while also tending to his pre-EotS outfit, Pnau, to craft a fourth studio set alongside colleague Peter Mayes.
Pnau have long been established on the fringes of the Australian dance scene, but their third album, an eponymous collection of 2007, made an impression not only on domestic charts but also international pop superstars. Elton John called it the greatest record he’d heard in 10 years, and Littlemore and Mayes seemed set for take-off. But it was Littlemore’s side-project with Steele that broke globally, leaving Pnau as something of an afterthought to the worldwide market.
Soft Universe aims to change that. Less wilful than previous Pnau albums, it capitalises on electro-pop’s commercial viability by channelling a great deal of charm through its opening songs in a style every bit as satisfying as EotS’s most memorable moments. But if EotS’s Walking on a Dream LP was possessed by an artist-in-love positivity, it is with Pnau that Littlemore vents the heartbreak to have occurred between releases. Only the lilting perfection of Solid Ground comes close to the upbeat vibe of Walking on a Dream.
Opener Everybody has Littlemore curbing stalker-like instincts: "I wish I could run to you," he says, over a tune perfectly illustrating his bonding with Mayes over Altern-8 records as 10-year-olds in Sydney. Unite Us is as anthemic as its title implies, with Pnau’s trademark choirs of double- and triple-tracked vocals lifting the roof off. The defiant Twist of Fate and The Truth are further examples of Littlemore’s seemingly effortless way with a tune – so it’s a shame that the album soon goes off the boil.
Better Way moans with the self-pity of a mate who has been recently chucked, while Epic Fail almost lives up entirely to its moniker, just as Something Special doesn’t. Thankfully, the musical-theatre influence of horn-soaked closer, Waiting for You, saves things, despite its sporting of regret-tinted glasses.
It is unfortunate that little here matches 2007’s Pnau, and much like a failed relationship this album leaves a lingering sense that things could have been better. It captures more of Littlemore’s own disappointment than might have been intended. No wonder, really, that he's started returning Steele’s calls.