Pnau – Soft Universe

Where has Pnau been? Nigh on four years after their last release, one could be forgiven for forgetting that amidst a variety of side-projects, Nick Littlemore and Peter Mayes still call their dance duo home. Especially after the massive success of Littlemore’s side-project Empire of the Sun, it’s interesting to hear how the pair’s new album, Soft Universe, fares.

Known for the rave-friendly quality typified by the 2007 hit Wild Strawberries, Pnau offers an immediately recognisable progression from their previous sound in Soft Universe. While it’s still as energetic as ever and with no shortage of synth explosions, it’s a more mature recording than their last – and after all the crazy of Empire of the Sun, it feels a lot more restrained as well.

But unfortunately, something lacks in Soft Universe. Standout tracks like lead single The Truth and album-opener Everybody hit the mark that the duo are clearly aiming for – they’re truly excellent tracks, catchy and affecting without being overwrought or twee. Both songs evidence what Pnau are capable of and how talented they are, which is why it’s so frustrating that the rest of the album fails to achieve quite the same level.

For instance, the track Twist of Fate topples into cheesy territory and is less ‘great’ than ‘grating’, leaving you yearning for the darker sound Littlemore proved so adept at in his 2006 side project Teenager’s release Thirteen. Perhaps most unsatisfying is how tracks like Glimpse and Solid Ground hint at this murkier sound, but stop short of completely achieving it – featuring promising verses, but choruses that become either too sugary or too overwrought.

What Pnau has produced is a collection of great refrains, verses and choruses – it’s just that only few of them are all present in the same song. It’s not that any of the album is at all bad, rather some tracks just smack of wasted potential.

Nonetheless, Soft Universe still has its complete moments – as well as the aforementioned standout tracks, Epic Fail defies its name and succeeds in its aims. Lyrically, while the album is clearly breakup-inspired, it’s not depressingly melancholic. Pnau have used affecting lyrics in lively songs to a poignant, not whiny effect – the emotional strains of “you fake and you fake and I was fooled/I thought you were the truth” lend the lead single substance without making it any less enjoyable as a dance track.

But this isn’t to suggest the album is lacking in character. Rather, it reflects why Pnau have become such leaders in the Australian dance scene – they produce dance/pop music possessing that ‘hit’ quality but without the over-commercialised, formulaic elements that sometimes creep into the genre. Importantly, Pnau’s sound is recognisably their own, and it’s an accomplished one at that.

Ultimately, while Soft Universe is not a groundbreaking record, it is a likeable one that will no doubt win them (even) more fans. I just can’t help but feel that Pnau are capable of a bit more.

Soft Universe is out now through etcetc Music/Universal Australia.