Theodicy is the branch of theology that attempts to offer up rationalizations for the Problem of Evil—that is, how a supposedly omnipotent, benevolent God could allow really, really bad shit to happen. There's the idea that evil is a necessary result of free will, or that we perceive evil merely due to imperfect knowledge of God's perfect plan, or that suffering tests us and that judgment will be meted out in an afterlife. Saint Augustine of Hippo, around the turn of the fifth century, proposed that natural disasters were caused by fallen angels and man's evil by original sin. Earlier still, Saint Irenaeus basically suggested that suffering builds good character (he was like the dad from The Wonder Years of his day). Safe to say neither of these guys ever had to listen to Owl City.
Nor did they have to account for a world in which an abomination like the Owl City song "Fireflies" could go to number one on the Billboard charts. For the uninitiated: Owl City is the drippy, egregiously derivative synth-pop project of one Adam Young—picture the Postal Service if that act had been founded not as a side project for Death Cab for Cutie's songwriter during a creative peak but instead by a preening, proselytizing prat from small-town Minnesota.
Young began recording music in his parent's basement in 2007, releasing an EP of songs online. In early 2008, he was scouted and then signed by Universal Republic Records, which opted not to announce the signing so as to maintain Young's image of independence while they began work on a marketing campaign. Owl City's debut full-length, Maybe I'm Dreaming, was released independently in March of 2008, then officially rereleased by Universal in December of that year. Young didn't start performing live until February of 2009. In July of 2009, Universal released Owl City's second full-length, Ocean Eyes, via iTunes; a physical release followed in September. The next month, the now double-platinum-certified "Fireflies" went to number one on the Billboard singles chart, while Ocean Eyes reached number eight on the albums chart. The band comes to Seattle this week to a sold-out show at the Paramount.
For all its success, Ocean Eyes is an utterly execrable record. It begins, on "Cave In," with the first of many couplets that make Young Money's "Bed Rock" read like Leaves of Grass: "Please take a long hard look through your textbook/'Cause I'm history." If you can make it past that hurdle (and the filtered guitar riff it rests on), you'll find production polished to an obscene sheen, all bright fluttering synth chirps and gently skipping drum-machine beats, with Young's Auto-Tuned vocals as cold and saccharine as a Diet Coke, every affected/effected breath stretched out for extra emotional emphasis.
"The Bird and the Worm" starts with an imbecilely jaunty acoustic-guitar strum—and a typically confused metaphor (the bird and the worm are having a romance?)—before adding toy piano and crunched hand claps, all building toward a chorus that's as mindless as it is wordless.
Then there's "Hello Seattle," which originally appeared on 2007's Of June EP, and which inexplicably became an early online hit for Owl City. In the song, Young, who has said he'd never been to Seattle at the time he wrote it, showers the city with yet more terribly mixed non sequitur metaphors ("Hello Seattle/I am a mountaineer/In the hills and highlands/I fall asleep in hospital parking lots/And awake in your mouth")—not to mention nonnative species ("I am a manta ray... I'll crawl the sandy bottom of Puget Sound/And construct a summer home"). This, over stuttering drums and soft-edged synth blips that sound stolen from a cell-phone commercial. Our city should be more ashamed of this tribute than Denton, Texas, deserves to be about that damning Mountain Goats song.
It's not like Young's musically inept, exactly. "Umbrella Beach," for all its Euro-trash trance twinkle, has a fairly catchy chorus if you can manage to ignore the words and focus on the sweeping synthetic strings and propulsive beat. Despite its mushy, mind-numbing midtempo verse, "The Saltwater Room" (one of two songs here that also appeared on Dreaming) delivers a decent chorus, a duet between Young and a helium-pitched female foil. Singles "Hello Seattle" and "Fireflies" both contain terminally sticky melodies. It's just that this stuff has all the soulfulness of data entry.
Oh, and that it's totally insipid. On "Dental Care," over another zippy melody and hand-clap motif, Young drops the following face-palmers: "I've been to the dentist a thousand times/So I know the drill," "When hygienists leave on long vacations/That's when dentists scream and lose their patients," "Golf and alcohol don't mix/And that's why I don't drink and drive." Jesus, your teeth rot out just listening to this drivel.
"Meteor Shower" is another slow jam that culminates with another big, banal, pitch-corrected chorus—this time of the kind that sounds like it could be a declaration of love for a girl, but which is quite obviously about Jesus: "I can finally see/That you're right there beside me/I am not my own/For I have been made new/Please don't let me go/I desperately need you!" To call it thinly veiled would be an insult to veils. Not that Young has ever hidden his Christian zeal; on the contrary, he's put it front and center on his MySpace page, posting, "I follow Jesus Christ wholeheartedly. He is my life, my strength, my all," beneath a picture of fluffy white clouds in a deep blue sky—because, you know, Jesus lives on an actual cloud.
At this point, let's just skip ahead a song to "Fireflies" and be done with this album. There's more ringtone beeps and bloops, some chimes, a rounded bass synth line, a piano, some strings, all building up to a bombastic super-compressed chorus over which Young sighs out yet more naggingly catchy, glossy nonsense—worst of all the line "I'd get a thousand hugs/From ten thousand lightning bugs/As they tried to teach me how to dance." Whether that's a multiplied total of 10 million hugs (1,000 hugs from 10,000 bugs each) or if 9,000 bugs just miss out on the cuddling action isn't exactly clear. Either way, it's a lesser song than the Magnetic Fields' "100,000 Fireflies" by an order of magnitude.
All of this is odious enough on its own, but then there's the matter of Owl City being a wholly artless rip-off of the Postal Service, from the frippy electronics to Young's damn near impersonation of Ben Gibbard's voice. Young is often evasive in interviews, alternating between vague platitudes and precise nonsense, but he's repeatedly denied drawing any influence from the Postal Service. In a September 2009 interview with the Onion's A.V. Club, he said he'd "never heard of the Postal Service"; a month later, he told Entertainment Weekly that he'd heard them "a little bit" and that "they are pretty similar," but that he was always really more of a Death Cab fan. Death Cab musician/producer Chris Walla put it rather more bluntly on his Twitter: "Owl City should really consider buying Ben [Gibbard] a pony." (He might want to sacrifice a goat to Savage Garden while he's at it.)
Still, he's all too happy to take the comparison, telling the New York Times, "[The Postal Service] released a record in 2003, and that was it. There was really nothing to compare it to until someone else came along and wrote the next chapter. Maybe that's this record. Maybe that's this band."
So who's buying this crap? It's impossible to know exactly, but if my recollections from Christian summer camp are any indication, kids in cloistered religious communities are desperately eager for anything that looks and sounds like "cool" secular youth culture yet still makes it through parental approval. (Owl City might be drawn to Seattle as much for Mars Hill's captive flock as by our bodies of water.) Then again, no one ever really went broke in America by catering to plain old bad taste, secular or otherwise. God help us.