Live: Owl City at Club Nokia
Since his album’s release last year, 23-year-old Minnesota native Adam Young has sold more than a million copies of “Ocean Eyes,” his major-label debut under the name Owl City. That’s an impressive sum by current record-industry standards, but it’s dwarfed by another Owl City figure: the number of negative reviews “Ocean Eyes” has racked up.
Most of Young’s detractors take issue with how closely Owl City mimics the Postal Service, a mid-'00s electro-pop side project from Ben Gibbard of Death Cab for Cutie. The dominant idea is that the Postal Service, not Owl City, deserved the big sales and the single that went to No. 1, as the latter’s “Fireflies” did twice in 2009; Young succeeded, critics say, only by shamelessly dumbing down more sophisticated source material.
That’s one way to rationalize Owl City’s ascent, one with plenty of pop-historical precedent. Yet the theory ignores one key fact: Owl City’s best songs are better than the Postal Service’s. They’re more lifelike, more reflective of the agitated emotional experience of high school. Young doesn’t analyze, he captures, and the result on “Ocean Eyes” is music that feels precisely like being a teenager in love with being in love.
On Friday night at Club Nokia, Young appeared satisfied with that accomplishment for about half of his 75-minute set. The outfit’s live incarnation contains six musicians (including two string players), which freed up Young to concentrate on playing the frontman role few of his YouTube-era peers seem capable of fulfilling.
In such uptempo numbers as “The Bird and the Worm,” “Hot Air Balloon” and “Hello Seattle,” he sang while doing a confidently awkward dance that probably hasn’t changed much since he was recording songs in his parents’ basement. The music was giddy and easy to follow but impressively detailed as well, with shifting layers of acoustic and electronic instruments. The technique worked in the background, though; like Owl City’s music, this portion of the concert presented a slightly heightened rendition of reality.
If you were onstage instead of me, Young’s performance told his fans, this is just how you’d act.
Unfortunately, the other half of the show suggested that Young has already tired of the puppy-love juvenilia on “Ocean Eyes.” He introduced “Dental Care,” one of the album’s most appealing cuts, as “a silly song,” and seemed to shrug off “Fireflies” as a novelty, a sort of obligatory gateway to Owl City’s real work.
Hunched over his guitar like a thousand depressive twentysomethings before him, Young led his band through dull stretches of aimless droning, and the sound was indistinguishable from that of any number of hipster-approved indie-rock acts.
Toward the end of the show, during “Vanilla Twilight,” he sang, “Pour me a heavy dose of atmosphere.” But Young is too young -- and too talented -- for that kind of drink.
Can’t maturity wait?