Adam ‘Owl City’ Young’s career trajectory seems pretty straightforward if you limit your survey to his full-length, major-label albums…great album (Ocean Eyes), near-great album (All Things Bright and Beautiful), good-but-not-great album (The Midsummer’s Station), terrible album (Mobile Orchestra). It seems like a pretty standard narrative of a declining talent…until you insert this EP, made only a year before Mobile Orchestra, and the best thing Young had done since Ocean Eyes.
This EP is easily the darkest thing Young has ever released, but apart from that it seems for the most part like a return to his early, Indie Pop style. The opening track, “Beautiful Times”, features the twee-sounding poetry that has become Owl City’s trademark over instrumentation provided by Youtube-launched Dubstep-violinist Lindsey Sterling.
The second track, “Up All Night”, with its Pop-flavored beat, straightforward writing, and angry tone, sounds rather like the album tracks on The Midsummer Station (for those who don’t know, the rest of the album, while more Pop-sounding and ‘normal’ than Young’s previous releases, did not sound like its hit single “Good Time”). “Wolf Bite”, on the other hand, would have fit in perfectly on one of Owl City’s first two major-label albums, with its childlike choice of metaphor and gentle instrumentation, were it not for its darker tone, which is much more desperate and tormented than the ebullient material found on those albums.
The final and most beautiful track, “This Isn’t the End”, tells a very sad but ultimately hopeful story about a little girl whose father commits suicide. It was later transplanted to be the final track on Mobile Orchestra, which is, for those who have heard that album, why the material take such a sudden upswing in quality on the very last track…that unexpectedly good final track was originally written a year earlier for this EP. The song’s narrative bears a certain resemblance to the plot of the webcomic Questionable Content, which may not be a coincidence. After all, that same comic used to have immense importance to the Indie Rock subculture Young comes out of, particularly during the Twee Pop era from which Young draws most of his influences.
To illustrate the degree to which Young outdid himself in quality on this EP, I need only observe that it received generally favorable critical reviews. I’m going to repeat that…the critics, who have despised this artist with a passion ever since he came on the scene with the Number One hit “Fireflies”, were able to set aside their hatred for a moment and say mostly nice things about this EP. Those who are unfamiliar with the sheer degree of undeserved critical vitriol that has been directed at Owl City over the years may not appreciate the full force of this implied endorsement, but the fact that even the critics were unable to bring themselves to hate this record really says all that needs to be said.
After the disaster that was Mobile Orchestra, Owl City is under something of a cloud right now even among his own fans, but I’m not so sure he’s really finished yet. If he could come up with something like this only a year before his latest disappointment, I imagine he can probably still turn things around with his next release. Remember, Ocean Eyes was actually his third album, not his first…he had two self-released albums before it, and they contained the original versions of some of the best tracks that wound up on Ocean Eyes. So that’s six good albums to one bad one, and given that, the law of averages definitely seems to be in his favor. He may or may not have done his last good work on this EP…there’s no way to know the future…but I’m certainly not willing to give up on him yet.