Owl City’s Adam Young: New Album, Track by Track
The laptop whiz moves away from earnest pop and embraces Talking Heads and hip-hop on ambitious new album All Things Bright and Beautiful.
When Owl City’s Adam Young released his debut record in 2009, he didn’t know he had a hit on his hands – he honed his songs in his parents basement in Owatonna, MN, during his off hours working at a Coca-Cola factory – but Ocean Eyes went on to become the sleeper smash of the year, topping the iTunes Albums Download chart in its first few weeks and moving more than one million copies to date.
On May 17, Young will return with his second album, All Things Bright and Beautiful, and the 24-year-old has cut a more ambitious collection of songs this time around. Young teamed up with top engineer and producer Jack Joseph Puig (Green Day, Beck) and broadened his sleek, laptop-pop sound by adding fuzzed-out guitars and club-ready synths and beats. Still, tracks like “The Honey and the Bee” hew closely to the charming, lovey-dovey vibe that helped rocket “Fireflies” to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100. “I wanted to move forward, play around with ideas, and just do something more mysterious or unexpected,” he says. “You can only sing about love so much before you start to get annoyed with it.”
Things are looking up for Young, too: He recently moved out of his parents’ house into his own place a few blocks away, where he built a new studio to record much of the album. “My house is like a studio that happens to have a kitchen and five bedrooms added on to it,” he says. And he’ll head out for a huge tour this spring, which kicks off June 13 at Nashville’s famed Ryman Auditorium. (Check out complete dates.)
SPIN caught up with Young at home and asked him to break down a few of the album’s key tracks.
“Dreams Don’t Turn to Dust”
On this synth-pop confection, Young mixes orchestral flourishes and his warm, earnest croon with a hip-hop beat he says was inspired by A Tribe Called Quest. “I wanted to use a hip-hop influence that no one would expect,” he says of the track’s gentle boom-bap. “I was listening to a lot of Tribe and I love that sort of walking speed of their beats. I knew I wanted to try and pull from that.”
“The Yacht Club”
Perhaps the biggest departure on the album, the track features a guest spot from Lights’ singer Valerie Poxleitner. It starts as a slinky, R. Kelly-esque slow burner, but it soon erupts into a giant, fist-pumper, with the sort of catchy, iced-out synthesizer lines you’d hear on any number hits written by Max Martin, David Guetta or Dr. Luke. (That’s a good thing.)
Young says he was inspired by classic songs from bands like the Talking Heads and hitmakers like Nile Rodgers. “I wanted a big dancey song with those big synths.” But the lyrics mine the familiar, heart-tugging terrain of his debut. “It plays on the idea of an outsider looking in. I tend not to be the most eloquent guy when I’m around pretty girls, and it’s sort of a comment on that.”
Young penned this track about longing for the end winter in the midst of one of Minnesota’s bone-chilling Januarys. “There’s this lack of life in Minnesota and I wanted to sort of play off that,” he says. “It got my mind thinking: What would life be like for a person trapped in a haunted house, where all these daisies are popping up through the floorboards, and there’s ghosts and bears and stuff. It’s about a likable guy living in a melancholy world.”
Young’s case of cabin fever has resulted in one of the most polished, sophisticated chord progressions of his career: “Plant Life” revolves around a bouncy piano riff that calls to mind Paul McCartney’s Beatles tunes. “It took a little bit of doing,” he says. “I wanted the song to be written like a B-side – not this quote-unquote radio single. I wanted to take people on this rollercoaster by using key changes, but still trying not to make listeners feel too jolted.”
“Deer in Headlights”
Young is most excited about this track, which features drums, bass, and electric guitar high up in the mix. “It’s big and energetic – it’s got a huge sound,” he says. “There’s this vibe of almost it being like Blink-182, but with a couple of synth leads. It was a new frontier for me writing this song.”
“The Honey and the Bee”
?Fans who latched on to Owl City’s hyper-romantic synth-pop sound will be stoked to hear this track, which finds Young teaming up again with his friend Breanne Düren, who sang on Ocean Eyes‘ “Saltwater Room.” “We do this kind of back and forth,” Young says. “It’s a bit cheeky in a romantic kind of way. I knew if I was going to go in that direction, I would put it into one song. I didn’t want to get too cheesy.”