The musical trade winds are blowing in Owl City’s direction these days. In 2009, when Adam Young (the band’s only member) burst onto the scene with his innocent hit ” Fireflies,” his idiosyncratic, synth-pop style was a bit of an outlier. Now everyone wants a piece of the electronic dance music action, and Owl City is poised to capitalize. And because he keeps his lyrics as clean as anyone on the scene, we’re well-positioned to listen to him.
As was true of Young’s previous efforts, there’s still plenty of wide-eyed wonder to be found amid the synthesized bleeps that carpet The Midsummer Station. But a bit of heartbreak seems to have crept into Young’s innocent world since last we heard from him.
And he’s also moving in a poppier, more accessible direction—which some critics have lauded while others have labeled a sellout. Pop singer du jour Carly Rae Jepson lends her vocal talents to ” Good Time,” the first hit from the album, while Blink-182‘s Mark Hoppus and Relient K’s Matt Thiessen add a surprisingly guitar-oriented backdrop to several other tracks.
Album opener “Dreams and Disasters” hints at our yearning for eternity (“I wanna feel alive forever after”) even as it counsels something like faith amid setbacks on our journey (“Follow the light through the dreams and disasters”). Similarly positive themes permeate the next track, “Shooting Star,” as Young exhorts a friend, “When the sun goes down and the lights burn out/Then it’s time for you to shine brighter than a shooting star/ … Let your colors burn and brightly burst/Into a million sparks that all disperse/And illuminate a world that’ll try to bring you down/But not this time.” More admonitions to shine turn up on “Gold.” And perhaps the album’s most poignant urging not to give up is found on “Embers,” where we hear, “I’m fanning the flames to climb so high/’Cause there’s no other way we can stay alive/ … Whatever you do/Just don’t let the fire die.”
“I’m Coming After You” playfully appropriates a cop-and-robber motif to describe a man’s pursuit of the woman who’s stolen his heart (“You got the right to remain right here with me/I’m on your tail in hot pursuit”). Meanwhile, “Speed of Love” pumps out space metaphors (a favorite of Young’s) that compare communicating with a woman to a satellite beaming down an important message (“Don’t you know, I’m up here alone/Yeah, I am like a satellite/Sending you a signal tonight”)
Young rarely, if ever, sets up his tent in the “woe is me” camp, but several songs here do explore a heartrending breakup. “Take It All Away” sincerely acknowledges the keen emotions you feel at the end of a romance: “I felt a pain in my chest with your kiss on my cheek/And as I tried to digest the words I couldn’t believe/I’m left with nothing to say with my heart on my sleeve.” Then “Silhouette” indicates that a difficult season followed: “I’m tired of waking up in tears/’Cause I can’t put to bed these phobias and fears/I’m new to this grief I can’t explain/ … I’m a silhouette/Asking every now and then/Is it over yet?/Will I ever feel again?” The song offers conflicting answers to those questions, alternating between loneliness (“But the more I try to move on, the more I feel alone/ … I walk alone, no matter where I go”) and a flicker of hope (“So I watch the summer stars to lead me home”).
Perhaps the strangest song here is “Dementia,” Young’s collaboration with Mark Hoppus. It seems to be another reflection on broken relationships (“Every tear in my eyes dripped and wouldn’t drop/ … Every hand let me go that I tried to hold/ … This is love, this is war, this is pure insanity/Dementia, you’re driving me crazy”). But despite the song’s melancholy imagery, Young told AOL Music that it’s really about refusing to live in regret. “It’s a darker song about how everybody thinks of how life would be different now if you had made better choices in the past,” he said. “If you let it, that can drive you crazy. If you don’t let the past stay in the past, it’ll be worse. It’s hard to know in the moment how the choices I’m making right now will affect me later, but you can’t really think about that. ‘Dementia’ is my way of saying let the past stay in the past. Don’t let the ‘What ifs’ frequent your mind too much. Put that stuff to bed.”
The iTunes bonus track “Bombshell Blonde” includes these lines somewhat suggestively describing the effect said blonde has on a man: “Her love is a drug laced with ecstasy/And her charm is spiked with a spell/A hot mess in a dress that gets the best of me.”
Count me among those who feel Owl City is perhaps the most refreshing musical alternative to be found anywhere in mainstream music today. And while Adam Young’s latest effort is a bit more emotionally introspective than his first three, The Midsummer Station still affirms a hope-infused outlook on life and encourages listeners to adopt the same stance.
And then there’s this perspective: “Adam Young, a.k.a. Owl City, seems to be a nice guy, and he knows how to put together a pop song,” writes Rolling Stone reviewer Jody Rosen. “But he’s also a menace. On Young’s fourth LP, he delivers universally annoying synth-pop pep talks.”
If upbeat, optimistic pep talks qualify as menacing, then menacing is making my day.
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews.