Magic happens when the right singer-songwriter wanders out of his element to make dance music. It’s the complementary contrast of introverted vocals and extroverted accompaniment that creates something bigger than those seemingly opposing parts. The Bee Gees had it when they took their ballad-honed crooning to the disco; Antony had it when he paired with DFA’s Hercules and Love Affair. And Empire of the Sun — Luke Steele of indie rock band the Sleepy Jackson and Nick Littlemore of EDM duo Pnau, both Aussie countrymen to the Bee Gees — once again prove they’ve got it together on the sequel to their 2008 hit debut Walking on a Dream.
The bewitching begins with Ice on the Dune‘s first vocal track, “DNA.” It’s a flashback to the spring of 1979, when disco was at its absolute peak, but Littlemore was barely a year old and Steele was still a few weeks away from being conceived. It’s a fantasy of a memory of what it was like to lie in a meadow and fall asleep to the radio back then, and so it sounds like a 21st-century impression of hits from that era by Gerry Rafferty, ELO, Donna Summer and Al Stewart, all whipped up in a froth of elation and elegy.
Neither Steele nor Littlemore (who presumably assists in the falsetto parts) possess astonishing voices, but they’ve got character, and the pair is now better than ever at arranging them in massed choirs that reverberate with desire and regret in the bittersweet Eurodisco tradition. First single “Alive” subtracts most of that sadness and sustains the sugar with a stadium-sized chorus of overdubbed cries; girl-like on the verses, boyish on the refrain and castrato-esque for the bridge. The result feels like a festival rave, sunshiny and communal.
What follows offers further club-ready excitation interspersed with mellower but still rhythmic midtempo cuts, all of them combining soft melodies with pumping beats until the one and final ballad, “Keep a Watch.” Elsewhere there are few surprises: Instead, Ice on the Dune is more of what worked so well the first time around, here painted brighter and polished shinier than before.