WASHINGTON, October 6, 2012 — Owl City recently performed at the 9:30 Club, just about the same time of year they appeared last year. That earlier tour was in support of the album Al Things Are Bright and Beautiful, and proved something of an oddball show. While Owl City is typically quite dependent on synthesizers, drum beats, and loops, the band instead performed with a full backup band. That didn’t necessarily play to Owl City’s strengths and made for something of an awkward set during that 2011 appearance here.
This time around, the tour is primarily in support of Owl City’s new The Midsummer Station. The backing band now in 2012 was paired down a good bit from the 2011 edition in order to better highlight the distinctly electronic leanings of Owl City’s core. Focusing on those core values brings a stronger focus to what Owl City does well while leaving a lot of the superfluous baggage at the door. An added bonus: this approach, at the very least, streamlines and professionalizes the set.
In every way that matters, Owl City is Adam Young. On his albums he incorporates various other producers, singers, and musicians. But the soundscape created for Owl City is, for better or worse, all Adam Young. His musical instincts are what dominate the sound of Owl City—a sound that has created a fairly large and devoted fan base but has also caused ambivalence in the critical world.
For most people, the type of sound Owl City and Young profess to play is greatly influenced by The Postal Service. That electro-pop duo didn’t invent this genre, but they certainly popularized it with the indie pop crowd and definitely had a huge impact on Young. It’s for that reason that they seem to be the main inspiration behind Owl City.
In general, Owl City grabs hold of the electro-pop sound and greatly emphasizes the pop aspect of the genre, primarily because Young is, for all intents and purposes, a pop musician. This has rubbed certain critics the wrong way, and it’s hard not to ignore the reason’s why during his live set.
All of Young’s songs feel like electro-pop doused in sugar. It’s bright and happy music, to be sure, endlessly optimistic, occasionally bordering on the outright awkward. (For example, his line “the female mystique takes my breath away” always feels a bit jarring because of how much Young continually stresses it on “Deer in the Headlights.”) When performers take this path, it doesn’t sit well with a lot of critics. Some absolutely despise it while others may be positive but begrudgingly so, hedging their bets by being quick to point out the pitfalls of Young’s music.
None of that really seems to matter when Owl City plays live, though. To paraphrase an old adage, it only matters what the fans think so critics’ opinions are essentially irrelevant. Usually when something like this is said in defense of an artist, it usually seems to follow from a sense of insecurity. Despite what they may say in public, most performers/artists do care about critics’ opinions, whether they actually agree with the sentiment or not.
It would be surprising if Young weren’t familiar with what his detractors have been putting out. But on the other hand, he’s such upbeat person, he would probably just thank them for listening and go about his day. When he’s up on stage, he seems to exist in a bubble of positivity, which is simply infectious to everyone listening, perhaps even to the most eye-rolling contrarian.
The band’s performance during its current tour is helped greatly by its emphasis on pushing Young’s electronic impulses forward. It’s for that reason that this year’s edition of the band’s tour is inherently more interesting than its 2011 stanza.
When Young plays with a full band filling in the spaces that would normally be occupied by synthesizers, the band’s live performance has the tendency to feel generic, with the effect that it robs a lot of Young’s energy. Also putting more emphasis on the electro-pop beat allows Owl City to get into a continuous groove, which gives the crowd who wants to get up and move a more danceable atmosphere. This, in turn, makes the audience happy creating a feedback loop that makes Young’s positive outlook seem that much more genuine.
One of the reasons critics are wary and weary of endlessly positive people like Young is because this persona often come off as fake. It’s hard to see that with Young, though, when he plays with Owl City. The sincere energy he gives off in the crowd happens in large part because his fans clearly love him in return and will always enjoy going to his shows. Honestly speaking, given the current mess we’re living through, there can never be a shortage of people like Adam Young. And if that manifests itself in the form of Owl City’s music, all the better.