Owl City represents the new paradigm in music: Just a kid at his parents’ house, mixing up an emotive brand of synthpop and posting it up on the Internet — but sounding to all the world like a polished and produced Top 40 act.
That kid was singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Adam Young, who issued a 2007 EP titled Of June, which shot to No. 15 on the Billboard electronic albums chart, then the 2008 long player Maybe I’m Dreaming — which peaked at No. 13. All of a sudden, representatives from Universal Republic were interested. Owl City’s Ocean Eyes, an out-of-nowhere major label debut, went all the way to the Top 10. Young then spent some time dabbling in a variety of projects, before releasing the appropriately titled All Things Bright and Beautiful — which debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 chart last year.
It’s such an out-of-nowhere, dreams-really-do-come-true narrative that you’re tempted to forgive the insanely sunny optimism that leaks out of every corner of these records. “If the bombs go off,” Young sings early on in Eagle Vision’s forthcoming concert document Live from Los Angeles, “the sun will still be shining.” Sure, but who will see it?
Owl City’s music is awash in that kind of magical exuberance, something that at first gives it this whooshing, squelchy energy. It’s all soaring optimism, and fearless flights of fancy, with none of the nasty consequences or regrets associated with what comes next. Credit Young’s Folds-meets-Gibbard instrumentation and lyrics that are something akin to next-gen Lewis Carroll pastiches — “I Am the Walrus” for the social-networking set: “I’d rather waltz, than walk through the forest,” Young sings here during “Plant Life,” before a jam-packed crowd on July 21, 2011 at Club Nokia. “The trees keep the tempo and they sway in time. A quartet of crickets chime in for the chorus.” Then, there’s “The Yacht Club,” from All Things Bright and Beautiful, in which Young imagines standing “under the waterfall kiwi-pineapple parasol as Cinderella dropped the crystal ball,” then making “the concrete cavern a caterpillar concert hall.”
Those are not isolated incidents. In this dizzying, sometimes rather twee reverie, it’s like everything takes place under a streaking comet, atop a shimmering emerald, or straddling a rocket heading out toward the wonders of space. And as with any daydream, there’s a certain comfort in distraction as Owl City runs through its most recognizable tracks. Among the highlights here are the charttopping “Fireflies,” despite the fact that it’s nearly wrecked by an annoying singalong; “Umbrella Beach,” with its — yes — underwater Ferris wheel; and “Alligator Sky,” though originally featured rapper Shawn Chrystopher appears on Live from Los Angeles via a video screen.
Still, over time, it all begins to feel too polite, too perfect. Young sings: “If I were to pluck on your heartstrings, would you strum on mine?,” but doesn’t relate what happens when the girl laughs uproariously at such a corn-pone come on. There’s an escapist feel to Owl City’s dreamscape ruminations, to be sure. But that only goes so far, and for so long. At some point, the comet falls to earth, the emerald get pawned, the rocket sizzles down to an ashy ember. And the girl says: Really, dude?
I know it sucks, Adam. But at some point, we’ve all got to deal with it — even you. We can’t live at our folks house forever.
Though Adam Young has often recorded alone, he’s joined on Live From Los Angeles by a full contingent of bandmates. Though they’re not credited in the packaging, over the years, Owl City’s live group has featured drummer Casey Brown, vocalist/keyboardist Breanne Düren, vibraphonist Daniel Jorgensen, violinist Laura Musten and cellist Hannah Schroeder. This expansive 21-track new DVD/Bluray release, due on February 7, also includes backstage footage and a bonus interview.