In Brief: As dorky as Owl City’s past releases could sound, he was much more charming as a wallflower than he is here, desperately trying to fit into the mainstream.
So this is gonna be one of those reviews where I play catch-up due to my own laziness and general lack of interest. When an artist I’ve been following for a few years, whose albums I’ve both purchased reviewed, puts out something new and it takes me nearly a year (or sometimes more) to get around to sharing my thoughts on it, that’s when you, the reader, can probably tell that something’s amiss. With 5-star landmark albums, I usually want to get the word out as soon as possible. That’s often true even with worthwhile 4-star entries that I genuinely enjoy despite their flaws. And with the truly bad 1 and 2-star efforts, even if actually listening to those albums can be painful, it’s generally a lot of fun to share my feelings about them, complete with a heavy dose of snark. So the stuff that tends to slip through the cracks is the mediocre 3-star stuff – that which is decent enough to escape the lowest ratings on the scale, but not interesting or varied enough for me to feel like I’ve got much to say about each individual song. I expect that sort of thing from a lot of flash-in-the-pan mainstream acts, who might have briefly turned my ear with a well-timed single or two, but who otherwise have only generic songs to offer. But I honestly didn’t expect mediocrity from Owl City. Embarrassing goofiness, sure. Syrupy synth-pop aimed at people half my age, certainly. I’ve acknowledged those traits and admitted to enjoying Owl City’s previous two albums in spite of (and in some cases, due to my amusement at) these tendencies. But when starry-eyed daydreamer Adam Young came out with his third major label release, I suddenly found very little of it standing out, despite how distinctive both the positive and negative aspects of his music could be in the past.
The Midsummer Station is the kind of oddity you’d find in a lot of artists’ discographies, generally right around album #3. The usual pattern is that an artist gets discovered via one or two breakout hits, which definitely happened for Owl City with Ocean Eyes and its runaway smash “Fireflies”, as well as a few worthwhile follow-ups. Then came the sequel, All Things Bright and Beautiful, which essentially took the same recipe and amped up the dorkiness. There were a few really fun curveballs on that album, and some extremely awkward ones as well. Ultimately, it fell slightly short of its predecessor, but I still felt that it had a lot of personality. But, as is often the case with second albums, it sold horribly. I guess it struck a lot of folks as more of the same. Cue the rushed follow-up, The Midsummer Station, hastily churned out in time for its mid-August 2012 release, barely a year after Beautiful. I’m really not sure we needed another full-length dose of Owl City so soon, but I guess the previous album had run out of singles sooner than expected or something. Somebody thought Owl City could use a bit of rebranding, and listening to the first few tracks on Midsummer, you can certainly hear it. Gone are the days when we could easily picture Adam locked in his bedroom, playing with all manner of synthesized sounds, doing his best to reproduce the glistening sounds and describe the candy-coated landscapes that could only exist in his mind. Now, a lot of that personality has been toned down as Adam collaborates with other songwriters and producers, creating an accessible but ultimately uninteresting dance-pop record that sounds more concerned with its replay value at radio and in clubs than it does with expressing the artist’s personality. Little bits of that awkward charm do still shine through here and there – not always in the most endearing ways, mind you, but at least the man underneath all of the computerized sounds hasn’t been completely snuffed out. It’s just a bit alarming to hear him go from not caring how dorky his heart-on-sleeve approach and his horrible puns might sound to the outside world, to suddenly taking this half-hearted step toward the calculated construction of potential future hits. It’s like the second act of an 80s sitcom (or one of those after school specials, perhaps), in which a nerdy kid has been befriended by some “cool” kids who dress him up in “cool” clothes and teach him some of their slang, which he adopts convincingly enough to fool the other kids, but not nearly enough to fool the audience, who know all along that he’s going to learn an important Aesop about being true to himself in the final act. We haven’t really arrived at that third act yet when this album sputters to a stop.
What should make Owl City’s bid for mainstream coolness most apparent, even to a casually curious listener, are the two guests who appear on this album. Past albums saw Adam collaborating with like-minded friends who resembled him either musically or lyrically. Female vocalists like Breanne Duren and Lights spiced up a few tracks, but you most likely wouldn’t have heard of either of them if not for Owl City giving them a boost in name recognition. Matt Thiessen of Relient K was the closest a previous Owl City album got to “star power”, but that was really two friends trading semi-witty turns of phrase with each other (and their voices sounded just similar enough that one could miss the guest appearance altogether if not paying close attention). Throwing Shawn Crystopher‘s rap verses into “Alligator Sky” was probably the biggest curveball, but it paid off, because he was there more to accent the surreal nature of the song than to pander to hip-hop fans. But here, we’ve got two glaringly mainstream collaborators whose appearances seem calculated for cross-promotion. One such appearance – that of Blink 182‘s Mark Hoppus, seems oddly dated, as if we were trapped in an age when it was still considered cool to mash up electronic dance-type music with pop/punk power chords. The other is an exercise in precision timing, since it’s a duet with Carly Rae Jepsen that managed to peak just as her breakaway hit “Call Me Maybe” was doing the very same. The latter becoming a legitimate hit probably struck the record label execs as all the justification they needed for suggesting, or at least supporting, this faceless makeover. But neither song does much for me other than aping the most superficial aspects of its chosen genre.
To be fair, there are a handful of songs on The Midsummer Station that I think have just that right balance of personal quirkiness, infectious rhythms, and/or insanely catchy synth hooks. Since my very favorite Owl City songs generally didn’t win their way into my hearts with brilliant songwriting or anything, it’s not much of a stretch to say that I’d welcome one or two of these new tracks into that short list. I’m also surprised to find a few songs that, despite their upbeat tempos and melodies, openly lament the loss of relationships in ways not heard on previous albums. But even those examples aren’t going to strike most people as terribly distinctive. When you first heard “Fireflies” or “Umbrella Beach” or “Alligator Sky”, even if you were repulsed by the sounds coming from your stereo, you could at least tell that it was different from the norm in some way. As you get deeper and deeper into this album and find Adam repeating metaphors and snippets of melodies that had already grown tired by the time “Vanilla Twilight” came around, you’re more likely to dislike Owl City for sounding normal and predictable than for sounding embarrassingly out of sync with the rest of the world. Given the choice, I’d rather listen to an artist who is disliked for the latter.
It’s also quite telling that my wife, normally a person for whom “cute” is the sole price of admission, and someone who frequently picks either of Owl City’s first two albums when it’s her turn to play iPod DJ in the car, didn’t care much for this album either. That should tell you that I’m not just being a big old cynical meanie for the hell of it here.
1. Dreams and Disasters
The first track is actually a pretty good example of how more of a mainstream-sounding dance track can work in Owl City’s favor. Part of that’s just how it builds up, from the staccato synth sounds that open it, to the thumping beat that picks up during the verse, to the full-on glowing rave that explodes in the chorus. Vocally, it demonstrates a good amount of range for Adam, since he starts off quiet and even a bit disgruntled, given that he’s describing a time that his car went on the fritz leaving him stranded in the middle of nowhere. Ever the optimist, he concludes that you just have to laugh at situations like this, and that’s when his peppier vocals pick up – “I wanna feel alive forever after!” It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to tell us to make the most out of even our worst days, so this song wins no points for cleverness or originality. But damn, does that chorus get me – “Fo – o – ollow the li – i – ight through the dreeeeeeeeams and disaaaaasters!” (If you can resist the urge to sing along to those stuttered and elongated vowels while waving glowsticks in the air, then I guess you’re a stronger man than I.) Since “Cave In” lacked a discernible chorus and “The Real World”, while pretty, wasn’t really the right note to start an album on, I’m going to go out and say that this is actually Owl City’s best album opener thus far. Too bad it goes way downhill from here…
2. Shooting Star
I seriously don’t known what Adam or the label was thinking, using this ultra-generic anthem of encouragement to lead off publicity for the then-upcoming album. Even among Owl City fans, the response was negative, and for good reason: Despite some bubbly synths that might superficially remind us of “Firefly”, it’s little more than a watered-down rewrite of Katy Perry‘s “Firework”. Listen to the way the mid-tempo rhythm gradually catches fire with cheesy fake hand claps and zippy synths, and it won’t seem like much of a stretch to imagine man-made explosions rather than quickly disintegrating meteorites being the thing that lights up the night sky. Now I’ll that admit that I still kinda sorta like “Firework” (and that’s high praise for a Katy Perry song, coming from me), but one of its major weaknesses was that its analogy made no sense, comparing a person who was supposed to brighten the world with their unique personality to a very brief explosion of colors that quickly fizzles out. The same problem is inherent in the shooting star analogy. But that isn’t even the most distressing part of it – no sir. Usually, we can rely on Adam Young to wring some delightfully bizarre and random metaphors and puns out of a setup such as a celestial chunk of rock crashing into Earth’s atmosphere. But here, he does so little with it that a million hired-gun songwriters couldn’t have easily done in his place. The song lacks personality and only manages to be barely passable as pleasant pop music playing in the background of some family-friendly movie.
Ready for another song that milks yet another analogy about a special person shining bright, with even less originality? Well, of course you aren’t! But Owl City’s gonna throw it at you anyway, because apparently someone at the label was in an awful big hurry to follow up a good opening with two of the most generic electro-pop songs that could have possibly been conceived. Nothing about this one sounds unique to Owl City – not the vaguely street-wise mid-tempo beats, not the whistling synth melody put on auto-pilot, and certainly not the embarrassingly stupid chorus that manages to seem like Owl City’s best ideas were already used up in the previous two tracks: “Go – o-o-o – o-o-o – o-old!” (Hey, there are those stuttered vowels again! Not so much fun this time.) “I know, you’re gold! Go – o-o-o – o-o-o – o-old! I know, I know! I don’t need the stars in the night, I’ve found my treasure!” (You’re also apparently so strapped for ideas that you ditched this song’s analogy for the previous song’s mid-sentence. Sheesh.) These lyrics also might involve the laziest use of the phrase “Shout out” that I’ve ever heard in any form of media (“Shout out to the dreams you’ll chase”, etc. – does he not even realize what a “shout out” actually is?) Everything here just reeks of Adam trying to sound cool and having absolutely no idea what he’s getting himself into. “Embarrassing” doesn’t even begin to describe it.
A slight bit of my attention is briefly won back by the aforementioned collaboration with Mark Hoppus. It’s about what you’d expect to get if you combined goofy synthpop with pedestrian pop-punk, and to be fair, at least the use of real drums and electric guitars is a welcome break from Owl City’s norm. The song has a believable energy to it, even if it’s rather paint by numbers as far as radio-friendly pop/rock goes. I could easily imagine Relient K recording the same thing, given how they started out as Blink 182 wannabees and gradually gravitated toward more keyboard-driven forms of pop/rock. It’s all vaguely enjoyable, but the lyrics definitely need work. They’re not bad per se, just a bit underwhelming given the premise that Adam is slowly being driven crazy by someone or something. This leads to some vague disorientation and bodily discomfort (“Every tear in my eyes dripped, but wouldn’t drop/Every disc in my spine shook, but couldn’t stop”), but I don’t find any real humor or cleverness in most of it, which is kind of a problem when you’re trying to write a song about insanity and you come up with a fairly innocuous sounding pop anthem. The song just makes me imagine some tweens saying to each other, “You so crazy!” just because one of them dared to wear a backwards hat and suspenders to school or something.
5. I’m Coming After You
So, you know how The Police have this famous anthem that turned out to be the most stalker-y love song ever written? Apparently Adam wanted a piece of that action. I’m absolutely sure the intentions here were innocent – how could they not be with this guy? – but the execution here is just staggeringly awkward. The premise is that he’s a cop, and he’s fallen in love with a criminal who he’s out on the streets trying to track down. Ladies, see if these lines make you swoon: “I saw your face in a criminal sketch/Don’t be alarmed ’cause you don’t know me yet/I’m on the prowl now, sniffing around this town for you.” Soooooo romantic, isn’t it? You can rest assured that every tired cop show cliche will be trotted out from this point forward, up to and including a clumsy riff on the Miranda Rights in the chorus. “You’ve got the right to remain right here with me/I’m on your tail in a hot pursuit/Love is a high speed chase racing down the street/WHOO-WHOO-WHOO!” Yes, he’s actually imitating the sound of a police siren right there. Alright, I might have to give him some pity points for that joke; it’s mildly amusing. And the overall rhythm and pace of the song does briefly bring back the fun side of Owl City’s sound, similar to what we heard in “Dreams and Disasters”. And to be fair, this is more like the “quirky” Owl City that I felt was missing throughout most of the album. Still, if this is meant to be a joke, it lands with a dull thud, and if it’s serious… hoo boy, is that an uncomfortable thought. Go listen to Fiction Family‘s “Just Rob Me” if you want to hear a good example of a humorous song about women being criminals. Yes, it’s stupid, but at least the joke actually works.
6. Speed of Love
So, seriously, we’re following up a song about police chases with another song about racing as an analogy for love? Gimme a freakin’ break. This is as terrible of a decision as putting “Gold” after “Shooting Star” – at least distribute this stuff far enough across the album that it’s not glaringly obvious how similar these songs are when played back-to-back! Not much else I can say about this one, other than that it was written a few years too late for a chance at ending up on the soundtrack for the revival of Speed Racer. Given its hyperactive synth riff and its bland lyrics about streaks of light flying by while various keyboard noises try to make you picture those neon-colored taillights zooming past you, that’s really about the best reason I can devise for this sorry song’s existence. There’s some business about satellites sending signals to Earth that probably could have fit better into the last album’s “Kamikaze” or “Galaxies”. Oh, and while we’re on the subject of astronomy, there’s a gloriously awful pun – “constellation prize” – that really should have been saved for a much quirkier song.
7. Good Time
So yeah, you’ve probably heard this one if you had access to a radio at all within the last year or so. Just imagine a candy-coated, auto-tuned dance-pop duet, and a chorus of youthful voices ringing out in mindless “WHOA-OA!”s and bobbing their heads while driving along in convertibles and partying like it’s Friday, Friday, gotta get down on Friday, and you’ll get the general idea. This collaboration with Caryl Rae Jepsen walks a clumsy line between Pollyanna-esque optimism (hitting us right off the bat with “Woke up on the right side of the bed”) and family-friendly approximations of Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night” (there’s no sex and booze, so “Freaked out, dropped my phone in the pool again” is as rowdy as it gets). Mostly, it’s just a generic song about G-rated partying, partying, YEAH! that got lucky enough to stumble across a goldmine with its admittedly catchy chorus. Unlike a lot of other dumb pop songs that manage to win me over with strong melodic hooks, this one has nothing of value to hang on to once I’m past those few seconds of pop bliss. It’s so lowest-common-denominator that I’m actually starting to think I might prefer the Rebecca Black song that I keep snarkily quoting, if only because there’s at least some great unintentional humor in that one. (It’s also worth noting that Southern California-based YouTube sensation The Fung Brothers did a pretty good parody of this one called “Bobalife”, which only serves to demonstrate that I might really like this one if it were about something amusing. As these guys demonstrated, adding rap verses to it also doesn’t hurt.)
It’s troubling that when I’m not actively listening to this album (which is really challenging by this point), I tend to completely forget how this song goes. That’s probably because, despite a promising opening where Adam tries to get real with us and sing about a depressing period he went through, it quickly reverts to a generic pop/rock chorus that somehow manages to be more of a bland genre mish-mash than “Dementia”, while containing yet another lyric about hopeful things that light up the night sky as if we hadn’t heard enough of it in “Shooting Star”, “Gold”, and “Speed of Love”, and on top of that, sharing uncomfortable melodic similarities to the song right after it on the album. It’s sad when such a high-energy and otherwise fun song gets bogged down by these pesky reminders of how desperate Owl City apparently was to come up with new material. Consider this Exhibit A in the case against rushing a follow-up album in only a year’s time.
Oh look, it’s a gentle piano ballad? Normally it’s a nice surprise when a primarily electronic artist adopts an acoustic instrument for the duration of a song, reminding us that they’re not so thoroughly attached to computers that they can’t do something a little more organic. In the case, though, we mostly end up with a dull four minutes that somehow manages to tie together the least exciting aspects of “Vanilla Twilight” and “Hospital Flowers” with a chorus melody that gets completely sabotaged by its similarity to “Embers”. To Adam’s credit, I appreciate his ability to write and sing something with genuine fragility – he’s clearly reeling from a breakup here, and you can hear the sadness in his voice, and though he’s determined that there’s still a reason to live and that he’ll be rewarded for pushing through the pain, he wisely refrains from tying up the problem in a neat little bow before the end of the song. This immediately puts it in a class apart from… well, any other Owl City song that attempts to be honest about heartache, honestly. Usually it gets a verse at most and then everything’s hunky-dory.
What’s this, swooping into save the day just when I’m thinking all hope of The Midsummer Station doing something interesting is gone? Well… it’s another melancholy breakup song with a bunch of clunky Superman metaphors. But, it’s probably the most exciting dance track on the album since “Dreams and Disasters”, and I actually find that its minor-key moodiness meshes well with the slow buildup of its infectious rhythm. His determination to get back to the one who left him behind ends up leading to a bunch of analogies about methods of travel that Superman could out-run: “Like a hijacked plane, or a runaway train/Or a speeding bullet, there’s no stopping this/I left my heart in Metropolis.” It doesn’t really make much sense, but it’s nonsensical in the same charming way that an old favorite like “Umbrella Beach” is. I went from merely liking this one just because it briefly picked up the mood in an interesting way, to realizing that I genuinely loved it on the same level as a lot of my personal goofy favorites from Owl City’s discography.
11. Take It All Away
Similar to “Gold”, this one’s got a slow, but slamming beat – I could imagine someone laying down a rapid-fire rap on top of it, but obviously this isn’t a hip-hop song. It’s actually another sad-sack breakup song with a melody and rhythm that gives it just enough attitude to sound better than it would as a whiny ballad, I guess. I have no idea why Adam thought it would be a good idea to cap off an album largely populated by over-the-top optimism with three noticeably sadder songs. It is interesting to note that the same guy who candy-coats life in such a cartoonish fashion when he’s happy about it also treats something bad that happened to him like it’s the end of the friggin’ world – I suppose I lot of us did that in our diaries/journals/blogs as teenagers, but I don’t know, a lyric like this seems a bit extreme for a pop song: “So if you’re gonna go/And leave me in a lonely grave/I won’t let it show/Until you’ve finally flown away.” What’s really weird is how that stomping beat just comes to a cold stop when the album ends – there’s no sense of finality or logic to the track order here, which hurts the album a lot despite the fact that I do kind of enjoy the song.
12. Bombshell Blonde
Curiously, one of the album’s most interesting (and painfully punny) tracks has been exiled from the album proper, only being made available to those who bought the album on iTunes. I could just as easily criticize Adam for writing an entire song around ridiculous secret agent metaphors as I did for writing one with cop metaphors, but honestly, this is a much better song than “I’m Coming After You”, and the album would have flowed a whole lot better if the two songs swapped places. I figure anyone with the audacity to write a song called “Bombshell Blonde” had better commit to their chosen theme, and Adam actually does a great job of this, cheesy as the results may be: “She’s a bombshell blonde, wired up to detonate/And I’m James Bond, live to die another day.” The electronic sounds that drive the song are noticeably louder and harsher than his typical song, showing off some dubstep influence in a few places. (I know “dubstep” is a dirty word these days, but for an artist already fascinated with making unusual noises via laptop, it’s not a bad tool to have in his arsenal.) Not that songs like this are going to change the minds of the “cool kids” who think Owl City is incurably dorky, but I certainly wouldn’t mind hearing Adam experiment more with “edgier” sounds like this in the future.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
Dreams and Disasters $1.75
Shooting Star $0
I’m Coming After You $0
Speed of Love -$.25
Good Time $.25
Take It All Away $1
Bombshell Blonde $1.25
TOTAL WITH BONUS TRACK: $6.25
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.