This album produced the first really huge Indie Rock crossover hit, thus paving the way for the unending string of hits in that vein that helped revitalize pop music in the current decade. Yet despite that fairly crucial contribution to actually making popular music good again, it received scathing reviews from the pro critics and an equally brutal reception from the Indie Rock subculture it was originally marketed towards. This response was actually kind of hypocritical, given that, if this album had come out in, say, 2003 instead of 2009, it probably would have been lauded as a masterpiece.
If you don’t believe me, think about the most obvious description of this record: gentle, pretty synth-pop with whimsical, childlike lyrics that create the impression of submerging the listener in an ebullient, optimistic worldview. Sound like anything you’ve heard of? It should, if you’re familiar with Indie Rock as a genre. That’s right—the Flaming Lips during their Indie Pop phase, particularly their breakthrough albums The Soft Bulletin and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots.
And they weren’t the only heavily whimsical act being lauded as geniuses in Indie Rock at the time, either. So-called ‘Twee Pop’ bands like Belle and Sebastian, the Apples in Stereo, the Fiery Furnaces and Deerhoof pretty much dominated the genre at the time, and even though that style gradually fell out of favor as the 2000s wore on, the fact remains that the albums they were calling works of genius in one year and the album they were panning in another have virtually no major distinguishing qualities.
Of course, the other factor in this album’s poor critical reception is obvious…it produced a Number One hit on the Pop charts with the single “Fireflies”, and given the Indie subculture’s well-known contempt for anything perceived as ‘Mainstream’, that probably hurt its cause more than any other factor. Even now, when Indie Rock songs becoming major pop hits is a common occurrence, the acts that do it tend to get labels like ‘Fake Indie’ from a certain portion of the subculture, so in 2009, it must have been perceived as outright treason to the ‘Indie’ label itself. After all, the only true Indie band to chart anywhere near that high before had been Chumbawamba with “Tubthumping”, and it got pretty much the same reception at the time.
The truth is that this album is lovely. Even the people who hate the album don’t generally try to argue that the music itself is bad, as the melodies and arrangements are so catchy and obviously well-crafted that that’s kind of a losing argument. You’ll hear it compared to the Postal Service almost as often as to the Flaming Lips, and while the resemblance isn’t as strong on the rest of the album as it is on the hit single, it still is in the the general style of Indie Synth-Pop originally pioneered by that band (you know, the kind that doesn’t sound all that different from the classier forms of 2000s pop music).
The real Indie flavoring is in the lyrics, which are full of thick whimsy and deliberately goofy word choices. Granted, at times this style can get to be a bit much even for this album’s fans (there are portions of “The Bird and the Worm” and “Dental Care” that would make almost anyone wince), but at least as often the surface silliness masks surprisingly honest and even profound insights. The second single, “Vanilla Twilight”, went nowhere on the charts, but is actually a better and more moving song than “Fireflies”, perfectly capturing the range of sentimental bittersweetness that comes after a breakup. And items like the gently sweeping love duet “The Saltwater Room” and the swirling, soaring “On the Wing” are no less evocative and magical.
Granted, the album is impossible to take seriously, but I don’t think it’s meant to be taken seriously in the conventional sense. It’s meant to immerse you in the artist’s worldview, in much the same way as the aforementioned Flaming Lips albums were, and since Owl City’s innocent, imaginative and kind of wondrous internal world is actually a really nice place to spend some time, I don’t see why anyone would have any complaints about that. Granted, Adam Young is not by any distant stretch a Wayne Coyne-level vocalist, but even the fact that he sounds like a twelve-year-old rather suits the kind of music he makes.
Owl City’s second album, All Things Bright and Beautiful, would be in much the same style as this one, and almost managed to equal it in atmospheric beauty. His third, The Midsummer Station, would be quite a bit more conventional than his first two, with a sound more akin to mainstream radio-pop than Indie Pop, but its strong production, combined with significantly darker lyrical content, made it a pretty satisfying record all the same. And his 2014 EP Ultraviolet was arguably even better, netting him about the only critical praise of his entire career.
I’ll grant you that Owl City’s artistic track record hasn’t been spotless…his 2015 album Mobile Orchestra is exactly the kind of embarrassing schlock the critics have always accused him of making. Even so, his best material remains some of the most unique and rarefied Indie Rock of the last ten years—and since those are the qualities that Indie Rock most prides itself on, their rejection of this album and its singer based on his having the temerity to actually become successful is blatantly at odds with their real core values.