In Brief: Sometimes you need to have a little bouncy, youthful, innocuous fun. Owl City’s here for the wide-eyed 16-year-old blogger inside some of us.
Alright, music lovers! Are you ready for a heaping dollop of synthesized pop music that emphasizes all of the laptoppy stuff over the live, acoustic instruments? How about a generous helping of puns so bad they make your average Relient K song look like Pulitzer prize material by comparison? And on top of that, a solid dose of everyone’s favorite musical gadget, the auto-tune? If you said “Yes” to all of the above, then have I got the album for…
“No”? What do you mean, “No”?! Why the hell not? How could you possibly resist Owl City‘s full-on assault of front-to-back electronic earworms, cleverly designed to make sure that an entire generation will be blogging (or at least Twittering; young folks are somewhat ADD these days) to the tune of each of them until the music reaches its sell-by date? What’s wrong with you? If this ain’t up your alley, then you’re just plain no fun. I’m gonna take my toys and go home.
Alright, I kid, but Owl City is one of those acts whose music I get a lot of simple, gleeful enjoyment out of even though I’m well aware that under a different set of circumstances, I could very well hate it. Consider an alternate universe in which I’d just dealt with the death of a close family member or gone through a divorce or something. I’d probably want to punch Adam Young in the face as soon as his tricked-out, kinda-nasal vocals came across the airwaves. I’d certainly want to choke the life out of him for all of those obnoxiously catchy synth hooks designed to lodge songs in my brain that make little sense when held up to closer examination. Yet, with life going reasonably well for me in Universe Prime where no bad guys have stolen a time machine, gone back and altered my history for the worse, I kinda dig Owl City. I recognize that the music ain’t everyone’s cup of tea. But I can generally find a certain amount of respect for a guy who spends the most fruitful creative hours of the dead of night tinkering around with dated technology, whipping up his own idiosyncratic songs seemingly without caring whether they’ll pass anybody’s “cool” test. You could probably say he’s just making a calculated effort to get the girl. But heck, I know girls who think this music is too cute to be bearable. Something must clearly be wrong with me.
Maybe it’s just my sense of humor colliding unexpectedly with my introspective side. I like to tell the kind of silly jokes that make people groan, and then apologize to me for their reaction, only to find that this was exactly the reaction that I was going for. But underneath the snark and cynicism that can sometimes overtake the lighter side of my humor, I’m actually a bit of a hopeless romantic. So I relate to Owl City, if only because this dude’s about as self-consciously awkward as I remember myself being when I was… however old he is now. Realizing that it’s aimed at a demographic half my age doesn’t stop me from admiring the approach, because it’s got personality, and to be fair, it’s not as clumsily phrased as some other blog-friendly artists in roughly the same genre (Hellogoodbye comes to mind). What’s most refreshing here is a genuine earnestness and an overall lack of angst – you might hear other artists in a similar vein flagellating themselves about loves lost and chances not taken, but Adam Young tends to imagine the silver lining and describe it in unique enough ways to keep insipidness from setting in. That, and the DIY nature of the arrangements are what really clinch it for me. I can’t help but love the idea of a guy from Middle-of-Nowhere, Minnesota who started out holed up in his basement with rudimentary recording equipment, writing songs about sunny beaches and sea life and places mostly far from the terrain he lived in… kind of like the inverse of Iron & Wine (a one-man folk act who hails from Florida but makes you think the music is coming from somewhere far more mountainous and woodsy). Owl City’s mainstream debut, Ocean Eyes, even has a picture of the Burj Dubai on the cover, which is pretty much the antithesis of chilly Minnesota. It gives me the sense that most of the places being described are places he’s only imagined going to, which is part of the charm, because hey, I like descriptive flights of fancy.
1. Cave In
I like the first things I hear on this record – synths that sound like they came from a video game, and rapid, shuffling breakbeats. Then there’s the next thing I hear – the horribly cheesy pun “Please take a long, hard look through your textbook, ’cause I’m history.” And I figure, that’s silly, but I can roll with an album full of lighthearted stuff like this. What’s interesting is how Owl City morphs and changes the beat and melody over the course of this song, which seems deceptively conventional at first but never really comes back around to a definitive refrain. It’s sort of a stream-of-consciousness approach, which for Adam Young means a series of puns involving his head, sanity, dirtbikes, and travel. I’m not 100% sure how it all ties together, but it’s an interesting opener nonetheless.
2. The Bird and the Worm
This song’s sunny, skipping acoustic guitar rhythm and little dabs of keyboard give it more of an organic vibe, even if there’s still a programmed undercurrent pulling it all together. It’s got one of those melodies that is so cheery, you’ll swear you’ve heard it somewhere before (in my case, I literally had, in a commercial for a local supermarket chain). Since I’m a sucker for the organic and the electronic mixing together, I enjoy this, even though I know the bouncy “Da da da” chorus is going to be too insipid for some, and all of the silly analogies about birds and worms and sea life meant to illustrate two people belonging together are going to make a few eyes roll. It gets stuck in my head and I find myself fond of its happy-go-lucky attitude. Still, when Adam whips out the groan-inducing remark “With fronds like these, who needs anemones?”, I have to comment that (a) the joke would have played better if he hadn’t already sung the non-punchline version (“With friends like these, who needs enemies?) earlier in the song, (b) he actually sings “anenemies”, which is embarrassing, and (c) he so totally ripped off Finding Nemo. Aside from that, it’s fun stuff. Note the presence of Relient K’s Matt Thiessen on backing vocals here – you’ll hear a lot of him on this record, though you might not always be able to tell him and Adam apart.
3. Hello Seattle
Referencing a city by name is generally the cheapest trick a songwriter can employ to get a local audience excited about an otherwise unremarkable composition. Songs of this nature are usually about little other than either road-weariness or your attempt to rock said city. Which is boring and cliche. Adam takes this city greeting in a different direction, however, conjuring up images of the waters of Puget Sound as he imagines himself being various animals or elements of the landscape, describing the colorful world around him. As his flight of fancy builds to another catchy chorus, it’s easy to get caught up in the escapism – I totally want to take a vacation there to see the place he’s talking about! Lots of bubbling synths and a snappy rhythm track make this one a winner, even if I’m slightly disappointed when it stops cold not even three minutes in. Great transition to the next track, but I wanted this one to linger for a while.
4. Umbrella Beach
It’s worth noting that Owl City, despite being an electronic outfit, doesn’t produce a lot of full-throttle techno/dance type tracks, but this would definitely qualify at once, immediately lighting up the dance floor with its urgent, mega-happy beat. Just to further drive home the fact that Adam is in love with the ocean, he creates a lovely picture of a warm, sandy place far from home, with faux-strings floating above the watery soundscape and an excellent synth breakdown leading back into the final chorus. The melody here is straightforward for the most part, yet one of his strongest due to the subtle twists it takes and the strong, synthesized bassline underneath. As it turns out, this is my favorite track on the album.
5. The Saltwater Room
Owl City gets slightly more serious here, though mostly just wistful and a little less reliant on puns, for their first “slow song”, which leads off with an acoustic guitar loop and a beat you’d almost swear he borrowed from a boy band. Yeah, this’ll be the first of a few that makes the girls go awwww. But there’s enough detail to the lyrics that its exploration of young love discovered on a chilly beach at night is more touching to me than it is insipid. What really makes the song soar is the trade-off between Adam and guest vocalist Breanne Duren, one of a few female singers who appears throughout the album to add a bit of a lovey-dovey touch to the proceedings. Despite not standing out as much as the fast songs at first, turns out to be one of the record’s loveliest and most well-executed ideas.
6. Dental Care
We’re back to bouncy 6/8 time for a song that I’m sure will make the tween audience giggle, as well as maybe a few of us adults who are still young at heart, because man, this one goes off the deep end with its cheesy humor. Adam’s going for the laptop version of a Beach Boys vibe with the bright, meandering melody here, and however ill-advised it might be, he uses a visit to the dentist as a metaphor for facing fears. Or maybe it’s literal. Hard to tell when he’s being this punny! To wit, take the song’s primary hook: “I’ve been to the dentist a thousand times, so I know the drill.” Also priceless: “Golf and alcohol don’t mix, and that’s why I don’t drink and drive.” Har har! There’s something about the giddy awkwardness that makes me laugh at the fact that such a joke was made even though the joke itself isn’t that funny. (I should know. I make dumb puns all the time in everyday conversation. Listening to this song gives me a taste of how other people probably perceive me.) If you liked early Relienht K stuff like “May the Horse Be with You” or “Chapstick, Chapped Lips, and Things Like Chemistry”, these lyrics’ll probably be right up your wazoo.
7. Meteor Shower
If you’re the type who always has to get preoccupied with the “Is this Christian music?” question, then this song’ll probably be a focal point for you, despite it being little more than a two-minute interlude. It reads as a devotional prayer for the mere six lines it’s afforded, with four of those lines bursting powerfully forth from an otherwise gentle song – “I am not my own/I have been made new/Please don’t let me go/I desperately need you.” Make of the “you” what you will. For me, it’s the musical landscape that tells the more interesting story, first quiet with the electronic equivalent of crickets chirping and soft piano playing, then erupting in a dazzling electronic display of light. It’s a fragmented thought, but it’s also a lovely one.
8. On the Wing
Somewhere in between its cute but dorky synths and its mid-tempo R&B shuffle, this song finds its own odd little groove. The album’s pace might lag a bit here, but it actually helps to make “Meteor Shower” work as a transitional piece, since this one also brings out the image of a crisp, clear night spent remembering/missing a loved one. This one’s definitely more “horizontal” in terms of who it’s written to – it’s a bittersweet story of separation, flipping the usual notion of getting away from it all that a lot of pop songs aim for on its head by contrasting a lonely, forested mountain with the hustle and bustle of the New York shopping mall that he’d much rather be visiting, because it’s where she is. Sort of like a slowed-down “Umbrella Beach”, this one’s got some nice interplay between the keys and strings. Both instruments are probably canned, but that doesn’t make the layering any less lovely.
So here’s the big one, I guess. I wasn’t that impressed by it at first since it just felt like a mid-tempo oddity about bugs, but now that I’ve given it some time to grow on me, I can see why Owl City ended up with a hit on its hands. That synth hook right at the beginning is pretty hard to shake, and the song does a good job of dodging the expected dance/pop sound for more of a minimalist, do-it-yourself rhythmic ballad sort of approach. The subdued sound, which slowly brings in the layers to make the chorus seem a little bigger with each go-round, invites us a little bit at a time into Adam’s bizarre daydream of finding comfort among the critters that glow in the dark when he’s lying awake at night, struggling to return to the world of actual dreams. Maybe I just relate because I’m an insomniac. Though I don’t dream that fireflies are talking to me. But whatever. This is one of those songs where the lyric is quirky enough and the melody leaves enough of an impression that the song would play well even if stripped down to a simple guitar or piano and voice. The trappings of the genre aren’t the only things making the song interesting, which can sometimes be a downfall of electronic music.
10. The Tip of the Iceberg
Here’s another tune that I didn’t notice as much at first, but it sort of snuck up on me. I’d surmise that it’s the product of one too many chilly Minnesota winters, since Adam wrings every possible metaphor that he can out of winter imagery. Unlike earlier songs where the metaphors seemed a bit non-sequitur, he seems focused here, using all of the imagery to describe the myriad obstacles that he’s willing to overcome to reach the lover who keeps him warm. Again, it’s the way that the song builds that clinches its success – what seems like a gentle ballad at first builds into a bold declaration with a solid beat – “That’s just the tip of the iceberg, I’ll do whatever it takes!” By its end, it’s every bit as danceable as “Umbrella Beach”, and you just don’t see that coming at first.
11. Vanilla Twilight
So really, they made this one a single? I don’t know, it seems like the most pedestrian of the available songs on this album, starting off like a traditional ballad and feeling like they used a few glittery synth effects to distract from the overly basic structure of the song. We’ve heard better songs earlier on about starry nights spent missing a loved one – songs that built up momentum instead of just floating by. This one isn’t bad in its attempt to do that, but I find that I remember little about it after the fact – it just sort of effortlessly floats on by. I will say that the key change before the final verse is a nice touch, but it still feels like the song lacks a true climax.
12. Tidal Wave
The final song bursts in with a decidedly upbeat mood, once again mixing the electronics and acoustics in a reasonably interesting way, and giving Matt Theissen his most noticeable vocal contribution in the form of a lyric that allows him and Adam to ping-pong back and forth. Arguably, it’s the album’s most explicitly religious track, which is to say not very – but the allusion to a higher power offering hope is there if you don’t need everything spelled out for you 100%. There are aspects of this that I appreciate, especially given its placement at the end of the album, as if to end it with a little more gravity than the mostly fluffy songs found elsewhere. But then there are times where this is only a pebble’s throw away from cheesy lyrics by a great many Christian bands that I like to complain about. I mean, I’ve heard a lot of CCM singers vaguely sing about being down and depressed and then finding “grace and love” and “a new hope from above”. The songwriting isn’t exactly award-winning here. Also, similar to “Cave In”, the break from traditional song structure has the unfortunate side effect of causing the listener to expect a chorus to come back around that never does, so the song – and consequently the album – ends a bit abruptly where more is expected.
For those who got Ocean Eyes from iTunes, this actually isn’t the end – a remix of “Hello Seattle” and another silly metaphor-packed love ballad called “If My Heart Was a House” round out the track listing. The remix does some interesting things with a long, dramatic piano intro and a rhythm track that keeps switching up, which is great fun, but since the title of the song is the only thing ever sung, it falls under my general category of remixes I like to gripe about because they left out the actual song. “If My Heart Was a House” is cute, but I don’t feel like the album’s incomplete without it. (It might be a more logical note on which to close things than “Tidal Wave”, musically speaking.) Both tracks can probably be heard for free with a little digging around on the Internet before you decided to blow the 2 extra bucks to get them for keeps. You won’t miss too much if you don’t feel like going to the trouble.
So, my final verdict on Ocean Eyes is that it’s generally a fun bit of fluff. Occasional moments of brilliant layering or pure, simple beauty do shine through, but this one’s generally more for the earworms than it is for the bookworms. Its charm is that it doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not. I can totally respect that even if I think there might be the potential for more.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Cave In $1
The Bird and the Worm $1
Hello Seattle $1.50
Umbrella Beach $2
The Saltwater Room $1.50
Dental Care $1.50
Meteor Shower $1
On the Wing $1.50
The Tip of the Iceberg $1.50
Vanilla Twilight $.50
Tidal Wave $.50
Adam Young: Everything
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.