Owl City: The Midsummer Station

Owl City
The Midsummer Station
(Universal Republic)
Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

Pop quiz: Of the four quotes below, which ones are from my high school valedictory speech and which are lyrics from the new Owl City album, The Midsummer Station?

1.) “When the sun goes down and the lights go out, it’s time for you to burn brighter than a shooting star.”

2.) “Shout out to the dreams you’ll chase. Shout out to the hearts you’ll break.”

3.) “I know you’re gold… Shine forever.”

4.) “Oh oh oh watch the world fly by. Oh oh oh rev your engine up.”

Actually, that’s a trick question. I was never valedictorian, so I didn’t deliver a graduation speech. Those are all from Owl City songs, which imagine modern youth as perpetual graduates. There’s nothing wrong with a little motivational speaking in contemporary pop music (see: Cat Power’s “Nothin’ But Time”), but The Midsummer Station too often sounds like Oh the Places You’ll Go set to Starbucks-decaf beats, opening-credits synth burbles, and big, wordless Coldplay choruses cribbed.

By themselves, these elements are shameless but not necessarily negligible. There’s a lot of joy to be had in pop’s functionality—artists creating music for specific situations. But Owl City alderman Adam Young assembles these pieces in the most predictable ways possible: You know when the big anthemic chorus is going to come in, when the music is going to fall away for dramatic effect, when the songs are going to forego actual words for fist-pumping oh oh OHs. It’s like watching a teen movie hit all the teen movie plot points and dispense the usual life lessons. This ain’t Clueless, though. More like She’s All That on your tenth viewing.

But let’s get back to Dr. Seuss for a moment. When Young isn’t exhorting his listeners to live their lives and whatnot, he’s indulging some of the most strained pop metaphors imaginable. He’s always indulged a propensity for soft-focus whimsy, as though pop songwriting begins and ends with “Such Great Heights.” Owl City’s first hit, “Fireflies,” was the charting equivalent of a Trapper Keeper illustration, and he hasn’t gotten much more imaginative since then.

“Everybody’s racing at the speed of love,” he sings on “Speed of Love,” and your guess is as good as, if not better than, mine as to what that might mean. And then there’s “I’m Coming After You,” another motorsports-related song in which Young sets a speed trap for the object of his affection: “You got the right to remain right here with me,” he sings. “I’m on your tail in hot pursuit.” This is a song written by an adult human.

And there’s the rub: Owl City specializes in breezy pop music intended to soundtrack good times with good friends—it’s music to make memories to. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. But Young’s idea of fun is based on an uneasy mix of cheap valedictory philosophizing and infantile daydreaming. He wants to send his listeners out into the adult word with a few words of wisdom, yet he insists on speaking to them like they were small children. Which grade is he graduating from, exactly?