Wednesday, July 8, 2015

album review: 'mobile orchestra' by owl city

I like Owl City.

And that's not a statement many music critics will make, especially considering when Adam Young adopted the moniker and smashed into the mainstream with 'Fireflies', he was described as the overly twee rip-off of The Postal Service. And yeah, going back to it, the similarities are pretty blatant on the surface, but Owl City quickly distinguished himself with distinctive melodies, a knack for quirky synths that stuck in the brain, and the sort of overwritten, detail-infused lyrics that walked the line between honest and poignant and hopelessly kitschy and ridiculous. It didn't help matters that Owl City made no secret of infusing religious iconography into soaring anthems that could ride the line of tolerability with me - not quite evangelizing, but getting dangerously close to the scrubbed-clean, drama-less purity that makes up the most inoffensive and boring of Christian music.

That was his earlier material, but as the years passed, Owl City's material seemed to be getting more and more bland with every passing year, culminating in his 2012 release The Midsummer Station - and sure, there are songs I liked on that album, but it seemed like the unique blend of overly earnest poet, melodic mastermind, and anxious hypochondriac was staying closer to the mainstream and losing the personality that made him special along the way. And sure, I love 'Good Time' with Carly Rae Jepsen for being a damn solid pop song, but it's not on the same plane of originality as his best work, and in an increasingly oversaturated synthpop scene, I had no idea what Owl City's new album would deliver. And it didn't help matters when I saw the feature list: I like Aloe Blacc, but when I think of his features, I think more of Dilated Peoples and Fashawn than Owl City, and Hanson's been doing their own indie pop thing for years now, the team-up only made sense in terms of relative innocence. Probably also the reason Christian pop artist Britt Nicole is here... and then there's Jake Owen, likely angling for a pop country smash that'd bring in his own lightweight sensibilities. 

And considering I knew fans of Owl City who had really turned aggressively on this album, I prepared myself for the worst: how did it turn out?

Well... yeah, this isn't good. You know, I just covered Carly Rae Jepsen's 'E.MO.TION' and while I was probably kinder to that album than most, it's starling how her brand of synthpop has gotten so much more textured and interesting across the board while Owl City's has gotten more tepid, bland, and derivative. Easily the least interesting thing he's ever released, Mobile Orchestra is the sort of pop record that betrays desperation and a complete lack of unique ideas as it struggles for relevance - and what's frustrating is that in the process, Owl City throws away the elements that were actually unique and interesting about his music. I don't even know if I can call it a sell-out, because even Owl City seems aware that this record isn't destined to do all that much - and it's pretty easy to see why.

So what went wrong here? Well, let's start with the biggest culprit: the instrumentation and production. I've always thought Owl City's greatest strength was his knack for sticky, approachable melodies, driven by the gleaming, sparkling keyboards that were his forte. And yet just like so much modern pop, with Mobile Orchestra he leapt straight towards the more percussion-driven, EDM-inspired pop that feels like a featherweight version of Calvin Harris, down to 'Can't Live Without You' being far too reminiscent of Rihanna's 'We Found Love'. And somehow Owl City gets the worst of both worlds: not only are the tinkling pianos or guitar fragments or swells of strings de-emphasized in favour of beats, the beats he chooses are so thin or fuzzy that they have no real impact to drive any sort of groove. Sure, there are moments that are pretty, like the hints of elegance on 'I Found Love', the waves of synth on 'Unbelievable', the guitar revving trying to add some ponderous swell to 'Bird With A Broken Wing' that only manages to stick a groove on the chorus, or the most memorable melody on 'This Is The End', but beyond that? 'Thunderstruck' feels like a Porter Robinson reject, 'Back Home' tries to fuse in pop country and yet kicks up the drum machines way too high, the synth and vocals on 'Can't Live Without You' are muddy as hell, and 'My Everything' and 'You're Not Alone' are among the most sterile, underwhelming pseudo-worship tunes I've heard in a long time. It's telling that even though I'm a sucker for key changes, it falls completely flat on 'You're Not Alone'. 

And on the topic of Christian music, Adam Young decided to really crank the religious angle up a notch on this record, especially lyrically. Now on the surface that's fine - God and religion can be fine material to write about, look at Johnny Cash or Nick Cave or a whole slew of country acts. But the problem, like so much modern Christian music, is that Owl City's brand of it completely lacks drama and creativity, just more of the repetitive self-flagellation I could find in any hymnal. And what's infuriating is that he's so much better than this: I loved 'Angels' because there was a sense of wonder at the unknown, something he couldn't possibly know and yet found some security in faith - but also because there was detail and urgency in the writing. Here there's none of that - this album finds a midtempo comfort zone and stays there, in writing and instrumentation, and its commitment to polish means some songs that could hit harder don't raise an impact. Take 'I Found Love', a song where our narrator reminisces about love as he's on his death bed - I kept waiting for the punch, but the lyrics are so bland and vague that it never came. Hell, the lead-off single 'Verge' plays as a graduation tune, but the lyrics are so lacking in distinctive personality that they could refer to any big courageous life step!

Of course, there are points where the lyrics get specific - mostly to their detriment. I liked seeing Hanson on this album - they've reinvented themselves into a pretty fun indie pop band since their heyday in the 90s and they at least fit over this production far better than Aloe Blacc's more textured vocals do - but the song reads as 90s nostalgia clickbait, and then does nothing to find depth in the pop culture they reference beyond it. 'Back Home' has a similar problem - it plays to country hometown sentiments, but the lyrics are cliched beyond measure and both artists sound completely tuned out - which can work when you're Jake Owen and playing relaxed cool, but Owl City has been decidedly uncool his entire career and his earnestness clashes badly - or at least it would if either artist had tried a little harder. Then there's 'This Isn't The End', the best song on this album for at least trying to tell a story about a daughter moving on after her father kills himself... but the second you start thinking about it, it raises some awkward questions in choice of words. Yeah, I get trying to humanize the father's depression in the second verse, but then you follow it with the lines, 'The role of the father, he never deserved / he abandoned his daughter and never returned'? That's a pretty hardline stance to take and raises some much heavier family questions than Owl City is prepared to deal with, especially considering he follows it with lyrics, 'How close is the ending? Well, nobody knows/ The future's a mystery, and anything goes'.

But the song that tells me the most about this album is 'Bird With A Broken Wing', which on the surface might seem to be similar to the martyrdom complex that plagues the Christian tracks on this album. But dig a little deeper and you see a frustration and bitterness, that he was misunderstood and his sensitivity was maligned and that he needs to leave behind his past and make a major change. Well, this sure as hell wasn't the way to do it! Critics didn't dislike Owl City because he was emotive or sensitive, but because he often played it with so much wide-eyed naivete and twee kitsch that it was hard to take seriously, especially if the depth didn't always support it. And while the song does reveal some self-awareness that his time in the spotlight is up, it also refuses to take any responsibility for it, preferring to languish in 'woe is me' victimhood that doesn't remotely feel earned, especially with the steep drop-off in quality!

In other words, it's a bad sign when the best song on this album comes from an EP released last year, and even then Owl City didn't take the best track, the single 'Beautiful Times' with Lindsey Stirling that beats everything on this record off the table. And coming in at ten tracks barely over a half hour, it's not even a sizeable enough disappointment to inspire anger, especially with barely any lyrical substance. Now that's not saying there aren't moments I kind of liked, because there are - Hanson and Jake Owen at least brought unique flavour to their songs, and 'This Is Not The End' is better produced and written than most of this album - but none of them are enough to save it. I'm thinking a light 4/10 and no recommendation, especially if you're a fan of Owl City - because if you are, it'll be a painful disappointment. I sincerely hope Adam Young really does choose to take that next step, whatever it is. Hopefully, it'll be better than this.

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