Pnau – Soft Universe

Sydney dance duo Pnau have returned with the follow-up to their breakout success, 2007’s eponymous effort which spawned the singles Baby, Wild Strawberries and Embrace. While there are no singles of that calibre clearly evident this time around, the pair of ostensible frontman Nick Littlemore and producer Peter Mayes have nonetheless produced a solid, though different fourth record in Soft Universe.

The opening bars of Everybody are the first indicator that the band’s sound has changed – a polished, radio-ready synth line paired with a clean, shimmering lead guitar creates the impression that this is something of a sequel to the opener from Littlemore’s Empire of the Sun project with Sleepy Jackson frontman Luke Steele, Standing On The Shore. By the time the band truly begin to stretch out in the chorus of “I need everybody to understand what it feels like”, it seems like a sizeable thematic shift has taken place. Where once Littlemore shrieked about picking fruit and falling in love, things have now taken a much more sombre tone, as if he is now a man locked in an emotional struggle, desperately pleading for someone to identify with him.

The chorus of the album’s second and strongest track, Solid Ground, is similarly solemn (“There’s too much worth living for/Baby, I’ll show you”), initially sounding blissful and life affirming but taking on a much darker meaning showing a spectrum of emotional depth here that is virtually unprecedented in Pnau’s work. The track is ultimately one of the record’s highlights. Unite Us sees the band attempting once again to create a summer festival anthem for the sweaty masses of young, munted clubbers, but falling short through decidedly weak lyrics which make the track seem something like a pastiche. Twist of Fate follows, a catchy pop song nodding clearly towards the sounds of the 80s new romantics without sounding dated.

The Truth is the moment where they finally nail the club anthem aesthetic they have been striving for throughout the record, with Littlemore giving a resonance to lyrics that might otherwise seem empty, while Mayes provides a stadium sized backing for his band mate’s theatrics. But Glimpse, effectively a throwaway track, breaks down all the momentum built by The Truth and seems as if the band try to take on a Meatloaf power-ballad through a vocoder. Needless to say this was probably not the desired effect. The whistle-led Epic Fail comes off once again as an attempted anthem fallen short, and by this point the record could do with something to boost it up a bit. Thankfully, this comes in the form of Better Way, a dance track that does exactly what it says on the tin. The languid hollowness of Glimpse and Epic Fail is cancelled out with a surge of dynamic energy as the track evolves throughout and cements its status as one of the album’s strongest moments.

The introduction of Something Special begins with synths that give the feeling that one is either about to begin an Atari arcade game or listen to a cover of Animal Collective’s My Girls. The end result is neither of these, but the track definitely comes off well, structurally containing all the hallmarks of a good slow builder and lyrically containing a healthy dose of hands-in-the-air euphoria with its chorus of “We are all, we are something special”. Closer Waiting For You is a subdued ballad that sounds nothing like the rest of the record, but somehow just fits. More like Burt Bacharach than Daft Punk or The Chemical Brothers, the track actually plays out as a straight-faced majestic piece exuding an air of maturity and sincerity. Strangely, though stylistically disparate from virtually anything in the band’s back catalogue, it seems like something they were born to do.

Soft Universe is a record with a strong, powerful beginning and an admirable finish, though a few lapses in the middle leave a blemish on what would otherwise be a quality record. Nonetheless, it represents a band that continue to evolve their sound on each record they release – things don’t grow stale in the world of Mayes and Littlemore, and more than anything Soft Universe proves that the duo are more than capable of creating material outside the confines of dancefloor anthems and nu-rave synth blasts. This record puts memories of dancing fruit and kids in white outfits jumping around like maniacs on Sunrise in the distant past. But unfortunately, rather than a step up, Soft Universe comes off merely as a step sideways for a band who have perhaps already seen their peak.