Owl City, The Midsummer Station (Universal Republic)
Release Date: August 21, 2012
Label: Universal Republic
We should’ve heard the last of Adam Young, a.k.a., Owl City. Back in 2009, “Fireflies” simpered virally across America, and annoyed grown-ups wished 1,000 slugs from 10,000 frightening thugs upon the moony outstate Minnesotan. But we took comfort from the fact that his shtick — a twee tween’s Ben Gibbard, the Postal Service for kids too young to have ever licked a stamp — was a one-off novelty fluke. The parallel universe of Christian pop would surely nurture Young, but he seemed no more destined for a long-lived mainstream pop career than the Chicago Bears Shufflin’ Crew.
And yet, like his divine inspiration, Young has risen from the dead, rebounding commercially after a hitless follow-up LP, last year’s All Things Bright and Beautiful. As heralds of resurrection go, the new chart-clambering “Good Time” ain’t quite the sounding of the Seventh Trumpet. Actually, it’s the sound of Canadian Idol alum Carly Rae Jepsen pissing away the universal goodwill that she earned with “Call Me Maybe.” The pair chirp with such an utter absence of vocal grit that they render the inevitable Glee and Kidz Bop covers unnecessary, with the line, “I’m down if you’re down to get down tonight,” sounding like an invitation to an evening of board games, Victorious reruns, and a fizzless two-liter of that off-brand cola your mom insists on buying.
But the childish “Good Time” is a misleading promo for The Midsummer Station, which, as Young has anxiously blogged, strives to address themes of a more adult nature. Lest you suspect a truly apostate stroke here — maybe eight bars from Tyga (“Owl City, bitch / Owl Owl City, bitch”) — the sexiest this stab at Owl City After Dark gets is the overextended police-chase metaphor of “I’m Comin’ After You.” (Young imitates a siren: “Woo woo woo.”) Even the guest vocal from blink-182’s Mark Hoppus on “Dementia” isn’t really all that incongruous — it suggests an additional role model for Young’s trebly ache and precise enunciation. And also reminds us that, despite their juvenile hijinks, the blink guys always wished they could act more like the grown-ups in Jimmy Eat World.
So it’s not like Young’s suddenly going to go full Hoppus and run naked down the street. Growing up in Owl City means doubt and despair, and Young tiptoes into some dark-night-of-the-soul territory here — not just, “There were days when each hour / Was a fight that I fought to survive” but “Will I ever feel again?” But the music remains buoyant. Young’s ravey electronics, cresting repeatedly in asexual climax, may be as G-rated as a post-prom lock-in, but they hold their own against the faceless slabs with which so many of today’s hitmakers clobber clubbers. After all, like Martin Luther wondered, “Why should David Guetta have all the best tunes?”
And yet, since Young worries that “All those heavy thoughts will try to weigh you down,” the “new” Owl City reassures us with a wimpier, belated take on the New Self-Esteem movement that’s swept through pop over the past few years. “Gold” is what “you” are. “Embers” are what “your” fire will rise from because “it gets better” and you’ll “shine like the sun.” Also, “It’s time for you to shine brighter than a shooting star.” Does it matter where we are, Adam? “No matter where you are.”
It’s easy to see why Owl City exist. A sneering, compulsory hedonism pervades mass culture and high-school hallways. It warps more shy, creative kids into defensive partisans of lower-key whimsy. It gives us underdeveloped pop heroes like Adam Young, who reduce their fans’ fears and desires to the handiest cliché while desperately reassuring them they’re all fuckin’ perfect fireworks. But they deserve better. We deserve better. Come to think of it, Adam Young deserves better.