In Brief: Easily twice as goofy as Ocean Eyes, but it explores some new musical territory and should be a crowd-pleasing sequel, uncomfortable lyrical moments aside.
It’d be absolutely silly to listen to an Owl City record and complain about it being overly synthesized, sounding horribly dated, or being long on gloppy sentiments and corny puns. Sure, these things will annoy lots of people, but criticizing these traits is a bit like criticizing an actual owl for hooting at night. It’s just what they do. If you hated it on the first Owl City record, Ocean Eyes, you’ll hate it here, and in general, this type of music probably isn’t for you. If you thought it was cute, however, your reaction will probably be similar here. Adam Young knows his way around a massive pop hook and an earnest set of lyrics – for all of the seeming randomness of his lyrics than can make many of his songs the cause of social awkwardness for whoever dares to admit liking them, there’s something about the naivete of your average Owl City tune that I generally find appealing. “More of the same” would be a good descriptor on Young’s second major-label disc, All Things Bright and Beautiful, but pump everything up a few notches, like a movie sequel that’s obviously trying hard to outperform its predecessor.
The first new thing that comes to mind when listening to All Things is its more brazen approach. Synthpop still rules the day, but a few songs borrow their beats from the land of hip-hop, suggesting an affinity for urban music without any pretense of being anything other than pop. His obvious love of the 80’s continues to permeate several tracks, somehow doing the impossible and coming across twice as dorky as anything on Ocean Eyes at times, which tanks a few songs, but there’s a part of me that admires him for not caring if he sounds trendy. You just have to accept a certain level of goofiness to get into Owl City in the first place – this is the guy who scored his first big hit singing a warm and fuzzy lullaby about glowing insects, after all.
The second thing that comes to mind – which may be the bigger change that could potentially limit Owl City’s audience – is that whole “Christian rock” tag that follows any pop artist around who professes a personal belief in God, or who hints at such through their lyrics. It likely isn’t a big shocker to anyone who listened more closely at a few of the tracks on Ocean Eyes, or who knew Young was palling around with Lights and also with Relient K‘s Matt Thiessen. But fairly direct expressions of faith more clearly permeate the lyrics on All Things Bright and Beautiful – shoot, the album itself is named after a hymn. It’s not a terribly awkward fit with the sunny, optimistic tone that Owl City fans are used to, but I could see it weirding out a few listeners. Personally, being a Christian myself, I tend to scrutinize lyrics that attempt to express faith more closely than I would with lyrics that are simply surface-level love songs, or otherwise just for fun. And that’s not to say that you can’t make big, goofy fun songs about God and angels and the like. It’s just that there’s a much higher failure rate for that sort of stuff, and some of this album’s material heads south because of it.
Ultimately, All Things is an entertaining ride that, while not as consistent as Ocean Eyes, should be a crowd-pleaser for the Owl City faithful. If you’ve heard anything by Owl City at all, you probably already know enough to know whether you’ll like this album – but I’ll dig into the details anyway, just for the sake of posterity.
1. The Real World
“Reality is a lovely place, but I wouldn’t want to love there.” How you react to that statement is as good a litmus test as any for how you’ll probably react to Owl City in general. The irony of that defining statement is that it comes in the middle of one of Adam Young’s comparatively more realistic songs – sure, he describes a dreamy place that he never wants to leave, but compared to the Candyland descriptions heard elsewhere on this album, the autumnal landscape he describes here actually sounds, for several fleeting moments, like it could exist somewhere deep in the heart of his native Minnesota. Despite the layered synths all a flutter and the head-bobbing beat, this actually more of a mellow- mid-tempo track, a surprising choice for an album opener because it has a lot more in common with the last album’s “Vanilla Twilight”, melody included, than the much more energetic tracks piled up at the beginning of that disc. This seems like familiar ground at first, but Young pulls an interesting twist by changing up the rhythm during the bridge, such that the twinkling piano always seems to be one beat ahead of itself. It’s an unexpected and dare I say slightly organic twist that helps keep things fresh and interesting.
2. Deer in the Headlights
If you’re looking for big, fun, poppy dance tracks, this one’ll probably fit the bill. It’s got one of Owl City’s most brazen hooks, an insistent, low-pitched synth melody that is actually a startling contrast to the sunny keyboards at first. As it comes zipping through, there’s a brief moment where I forget what song I’m listening to and I’m tempted to start singing “You better jump for my love!” But the song establishes its own quirky identity soon enough, its punchy rhythm accenting the inherently corny humor behind a rather ridiculous story of love at first sight turning Adam into a beautiful woman’s punching bag. Try this one on for size: “Met a girl in the parking lot/And all I did was say hello/Her pepper spray made it rather hard/For me to walk her home/But I guess that’s the way it goes.” It’s ten kinds of awkward, and it’s probably supposed to be, but if you can get over the absurd idea of a guy as non-threatening being somehow mistaken for a serial rapist and take it as more of a metaphor for young love being one of those things that leaves young shy guys feeling all black and blue, then you stand a better chance of having some fun with it. Replace the throbbing beat and unabashedly dated synths with real drums and guitar, and I could easily imagine this being an old-school Relient K song. (Heck, it’d fit right in beside “Mood Ring” or some of the teenybopper/80’s covers they’ve done on a lark.)
“Wake me if you’re out there!!!” We can probably infer from this big, shiny anthem, with its loud, driving chorus that seems tailor-made for radio, that this is intended to be the next “Fireflies”. It’s got that same sort of mood to it, with Adam pondering the mysterious glow of special creatures that he stays up late to talk to at night. Except this time they’re not just insects – they’re actual supernatural beings. And Adam’s conversations with said beings take on a notably more prayerful quality, phrased in a way that only a guy like him would think to refer to such a religious experience: “I keep my knees black and blue’, cause they often hit the hard wood floor/And I believe, so I’m not praying to the ceiling anymore.” The song’s mostly just a flight of fancy, conflating the notion of invisible beings coming down from on high with whatever physical evidence he can see of the cosmos. Admittedly it’s sort of weird to hear a guy who spends so much of his time singing about fantasy dream visions try to depict something that he actually believes in for real. It runs the risk of making that belief sound like it comes from the same place as the other completely cuckoo visions he comes up with. But I don’t think the song’s aiming for theological verisimilitude, or anything more than a vaguely faith-affirming good time, so I’ll just enjoy the massive hooks and try not to get hung up on weird puns about “seventh heaven” or the inherent redundancy in the statement “I guarantee there are angels around your vicinity.”
4. Dreams Don’t Turn to Dust
A rich, but obviously synthetic string intro collides with one of Owl City’s more streetwise beats (assuming the streets in question exist on a map of Sim City, I guess), as Adam once again bids adieu to the cold, harsh world known as reality and insists with all the gusto of Pollyanna that dreams are meant to come true. It’s quite a fun construction, musically speaking, with the thick beats bumping around and playing off of the starry, cinematic synth hook. But Adam runs the risk of repeating himself here, since the theme of the song is so similar to “The Real World”, and the song’s primary melody once again reminds me of “Vanilla Twilight”. I think there are certain melodic phrases that must keep running through his head, but to his credit, both times he’s reminded me of that song, he’s come up with something more interesting, since “Twilight” was never really one of my favorites on Ocean Eyes.
5. Honey and the Bee
It’s saying a lot when the puns get too painfully cheesy even for me to handle. Ask anybody who spends even the slightest amount of time around me on a regular basis – I always jump at the opportunity to make folks groan with whatever bit of wordplay comes to mind, no matter how unsolicited or out-of-nowhere it may seem given the preceding conversation. So when I cringe a bit at this song’s chorus co-opting the old “make like a tree and leave” joke, or the many bizarre analogies that compare a relationship between two young lovers to the lives of various insects and flowers, you can be assured that you’ll probably cringe even more. The lyrics make about as much sense as a similar approach did in “The Bird and the Worm”, which is to say that they’re all over place and you’re doomed to have mixed feelings about the song if you bother to pay too close attention to them. I mean, saying “We are honey and the bee” sounds sweet on the surface, but think about the fact that honey is essentially bee barf, and the whole thing goes south. (Then again, so does the use of “honey” as a pet name in general. This oddity has been around forever, I guess.) It’s really a shame that the lyrics are so distracting, because the acoustic guitar is a breath of fresh air, and the vocal tag team of Adam and Breanne Duren is so clearly aching to recreate the same magic they did on “The Saltwater Room”, one of my favorite tracks from Ocean Eyes. And it doesn’t quite make it there. You could look back on “Saltwater” and probably find just as much lyrical nonsense, or just as many painful rhymes, to complain about as I’m finding here, but for whatever reason, I’m having a much harder time letting this one grow on me. (And I’m surprised, as I say the words “grow on me”, that Adam has not used these three words in one of his painful nature analogies.)
Whoo boy. If I thought I could ever get away with slipping Owl City by as innocuous background pop music with someone in the car who might mercilessly tease me for liking this stuff upon closer inspection of the lyrics, this would probably be the one song that would be impossible to ignore. The bizarre, medieval fantasy meets sci-fi storytelling is par for Owl City’s course – once again, tons of fun if you don’t think too much about it. And the slamming beat is another one of Young’s most confident, bringing to mind everything I loved about “Hello Seattle” or “Umbrella Beach”. But there’s this conspicuously goofy shouting that leaps out from the background, in between every vocal line of the chorus, that I get the feeling was supposed to be a bit of background flavor, but was shoved way too far up into the mix – “OH COMET COME DOWN!!!” The way Adam enunciates this, and similar lines that pepper about half the song, make it sound like he’s auditioning for the Fred Schneider role in The B-52’s. Which sort of makes sense, in its own way, since B-52’s and Kamikazes are both bombers. But then I start to get really uncomfortable with the mixed metaphors, as I realize the kamikaze, the comet that he’s begging to come down and strike the earth, and the “captain on a snowy horse” are all one in the same. So he’s comparing a suicide bomber and an astronomical impact event to the second coming of Christ. Maybe. It’s better if I don’t overanalyze it… but only marginally.
7. January 28, 1986
Well, I never thought an Owl City track would succeed at being a tearjerker, but that’s exactly what Young accomplishes with this 30-second snippet of backmasked piano sounds, awash in layered vocals, acting as a backdrop for a snippet of Ronald Reagan‘s eulogy for the Challenger astronauts who perished on the titular date. If you’re old enough to remember this (and I’m honestly kind of surprised that he is!), then you’ll understand why it’s so meaningful to him. How it fits into the album is another story…
…but in fairness, it’s placed reasonably well as an intro to one of Owl City’s more convincing space exploration-themed tracks. Adam clearly relates to those fated astronauts’ desire to explore the galaxy as he describes the sort of otherworldly experience that he can only guess launching into outer space would entail. As always, it’s embellished with all manner of intentionally exaggerated, astronomically inaccurate details, but it’d be silly to expect anything else. Amidst the relentless beat, the glitzy maze of video-game sounds, and the innocuous “da da da” background vocals, there’s some genuine emotion behind it – and also one of Adam’s more convincingly religious moments – when he cries, “Dear God, I was terribly lost when the galaxies crossed and the sun went dark.” One can imagine the effect that such a tragedy would have on a young, nerdy kid who maybe saw space explorers as his heroes, the kind of people he’d have action figures of if he could. I can relate. Having said that, if I assume that these two tracks are meant to be thematically linked that makes “Blow your backbone to bits” an incredibly unfortunate choice of words in the second verse. So maybe I’ll go back to pretending I have no clue what he’s on about?
9. Hospital Flowers
Wow, what’s this, a stripped down piano ballad? For the first few seconds, anyway. It’s enough of a strikingly sparse opening to momentarily make those who disfavor the synthesizeritis to reconsider their opinion of Owl City as all style and no substance. A programmed beat and the usual heavily processed keyboard sounds work their way in soon enough, but to be fair, I could imagine this being the one song that gives Adam Young more to do during an Owl City concert than simply pressing “play” on a glorified MIDI file and singing along. That is to say, this one could work in fully acoustic mode, which is a rarity for this guy. It’s also got one of his more coherent analogies, as he lies in wait for recovery in a hospital room after a near-deadly car crash, but instead of being bitter over his injuries, he’s actually grateful that it reminded him of grace and the preciousness of life in general. “Happiness returned to me through a grave emergency.” Whether this is based on personal experience, I can’t say, but being the kind of person who would sooner ask, “Why me?” and get really jaded after an unfortunate accident like that, I can appreciate that he’s trying his hardest to see the silver lining. That said, due to the more stripped-down nature, this isn’t one of the album’s more musically interesting tracks. Toward the end, it kind of feels like it’s plodding along without a strong enough melody to really drive its point home. (Why do all of his best hooks seem to get paired with the most ridiculous lyrics, only for stuff like this to happen during the slow songs?)
10. Alligator Sky
Okay, now this song? This is my jam, right here. Yes, I’m fully aware that it’s the same sort of fantasy-land nonsense that I’ve noted as being a bit repetitive elsewhere. I mean, what the heck is an alligator sky, anyway? The sky turns a lot of colors, but never green, and I’m pretty sure it never has reptilian scales. Forget about all that. It’s simply fun as a tongue-twisting vocal exercise, notably because it’s Owl City’s first hip-hop song (well, sort of – it’s still unabashedly poppy and programmed, but then look at just about any hit urban song these days and tell me it’s not the same thing coming from the other direction), by way of guest rapper Shawn Chrystopher and his extremely catchy verses. Combined with the ludicrous chorus that makes me smile in spite of myself, it’s an unstoppable force – a song that is new territory for Owl City, yet immediately 100% believable given what we already knew of Young’s personality. Sure, I could nitpick some of Shawn’s lyrics for being non-sequitur nonsense – like “We’ve been lied to/That the sun is something that we can’t fly to”, for example. (Hint: You can fly to the sun if you really want, but don’t plan on a return trip, even if you do plan on going at night.) But honestly, I’m not really in the mood for nitpicking, because the song’s a runaway success just for the sheer joy of the vocal syllables colliding with the strings and the syncopated rhythm. (You can get a version of this without the rap, instead filled in with comparatively more ordinary sung verses from Adam if you want, but since this is the official album version, that other one feels like a forced radio edit in comparison.)
11. The Yacht Club
So, that friendship between Owl City and Lights that I mentioned earlier finally gives way to a collaboration on record. Not that you could tell the difference between her contributions here and Breanne Duren’s on “Honey and the Bee”, “The Saltwater Room”, or “On the Wing” – that’s just an unfortunate side effect of taking a capable vocalist and hiding her behind a layer of intentionally mechanical-sounding pitch correction. Nevertheless, that’s how Lights does it on a regular basis anyway, so I’ll let that nitpick go and just enjoy a fun late-album dance track that’s as filled to the brim with fun nautical metaphors as my favorite Ocean Eyes track, “Umbrella Beach”. The inherently uncool reputation that yachts have in the music world aside, this is a pretty solid collaboration, even if it does sound like something you could have easily heard at a rave in the 90’s.
12. Plant Life
The end of the album seems to be where all of the guest contributors pile up, as the aforementioned Matt Theissen shows up to help sing a song that doesn’t merely fool us into thinking Relient K had an influence on it – this time it’s actually true. But it’s definitely the latter-day Relient K, as this is a jaunty, mid-tempo piano tune in line with some of Thiessen’s more recent happy-go-lucky songs (so, in other words, pretend Forget and Not Slow Down never existed and he went even poppier after Five Score and Seven Years Ago). The metaphors are vintage Owl City, helped along by Thiessen’s usual witticisms, mining terminology from forestry and horticulture to grasp at a feeling of being alive again after a period of feeling spiritually dead. The mood is a lot like the Ocean Eyes bonus track, “If My Heart Was a House”, especially since it’s the rare Owl City song that’s in 6/8 time, rather than the usual four on the floor. Like “Hospital Flowers”, I could see this working well in acoustic mode, particularly as a stripped-down encore if RK and Owl City ever toured together, but then again, there are several instrumental embellishments that help to give the song its character. It’s too bad this one came out too late for a commercial tie-in with the highly addictive game Plants Vs. Zombies. It’d make the perfect soundtrack.
As with Ocean Eyes, there are various and sundry bonus tracks that you can get depending on where you acquired the album, but I haven’t heard them all and wouldn’t want to mislead you about something that you might not end up with on your version anyway. These twelve tracks are the core of an album that’s fun enough to score vaguely above average on my admittedly arbitrary scale, despite the nitpicks I have about it often being too silly for its own good. I wouldn’t call All Things “mindless entertainment” at the end of the day – it’s just that it’s impossible to follow Adam Young’s mind to all of the weird places it goes, and that gives me some pause when he throws genuine faith into the otherwise fake reality he’s constructed. I’m glad I got over the weirdness and gave it another chance beyond my first reaction – but given the young median age of Owl City’s overall fanbase, I can’t say how many will be willing to do the same.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
The Real World $1.50
Deer in the Headlights $1.50
Dreams Don’t Turn to Dust $1.50
Honey and the Bee $.50
January 28, 1986 $0
Hospital Flowers $.50
Alligator Sky $2
The Yacht Club $1
Plant Life $1
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.