Happy 10th birthday to Owl City’s ‘Ocean Eyes,’ the scariest pop album of 2009

This man sings about the terror and wonder of the sea.

This man sings about the terror and wonder of the sea. Star Tribune

Ten years ago, Owatonna singer-songwriter and innocent dreamer Adam Young concocted a cloying, earnest, ebullient electropop style that announced itself as the sound of sublimated childhood nostalgia, and it instantly went platinum. How could it not?

Young sang about how much he loved God, animals, and Auto-Tune. The music’s glassy whirl captured an advanced mode of sentimentality, conjuring kitsch not through overstatement but daintiness. It’s so absurd, it’s marvelous.

Critics panned Ocean Eyes at the time, viewing it as icky juvenilia that jacked the Postal Service, but the Owl City aesthetic has sneakily persisted. Contemporary EDM’s ingenuous enthusiasm and gleaming whooshes reflect Owl City’s influence rather more than Ben Gibbard’s, as does the association between electronic polish and quiet contemplation that defines so much of the past decade’s alternative pop. Yet the dinkiness has somehow been ironed out. To listen to Ocean Eyes is to observe a sensibility that Jack Antonoff, Carly Rae Jepsen, and the many practitioners of #Spotifycore have tweaked, refined, and made tasteful in their respective, calculating ways.

In contrast, Owl City’s blandness remains ridiculous, immersed in heartwarming gestures from children’s music that alarm in an adult pop context. Those keyboard twinkles and strummed acoustic guitars are relentlessly upbeat and convey a repressed anxiety, because there’s always something eerie about false cheer.

“Fireflies” (explained here) was the hit, a perky little ditty about counting bugs to fall asleep. But most of Ocean Eyes exists in an imagined nautical environment, as Young dedicates the album to “All my pals who live in the oceans and the seas.” It’s a child’s view of the beach, informed by Spongebob and Finding Nemo, a fantastical playground where one can frolic on the sand and in the waves, seek out cozy underwater hideaways and befriend manta rays, seahorses, scuba divers. “I'm from the middle of nowhere in Minnesota you see, so the ocean has always been a curiously dreamy, ethereal, almost romantic thing to me,” Young wrote on his blog. “Over the years I spent a great deal of time with my eyes closed, imagining myself having the most wonderful adventures by the seaside.”

“Hello Seattle” salutes the various animals and landmarks around Puget Sound, as a high, bubbly arpeggiated synth loop pitters with the force of rain hitting water and electric bleeps sweep in like wind. The circular, repetitive verses are broken up by the climactic final verse, in which the city’s light and energy lift him up and carry him home.

Throughout Ocean Eyes, the cold technological surface of the music modulates representations of nature. Young’s fizzy laptop beats sketch an artificial sonic rendition of the ocean, surging and receding with pristine, antiseptic chill. “Meteor Shower” is his loveliest fragment: The placid, swirling beat creates a calm atmosphere, before the chorus erupts in a flurry of light and sparkle. A depiction of how natural beauty takes you by surprise, it’s as lovely as Brian Eno’s “St. Elmo’s Fire.”

Young’s dorky singing is key; he delivers even the saddest lyrics with enthusiasm, as if forcing himself to smile, an effect heightened by his habit of over-enunciating consonants. “Dental Care” is a minor camp masterpiece: Over an eager, intolerably bouncy electrobeat, Young visits the dentist and is subjected to a series of increasingly horrific procedures, keeping his good spirits up by cracking some truly terrible puns (“I’ve been to the dentist a thousand times, so I know the drill”). Under the influence of laughing gas, he utters the following couplet: “Golf and alcohol don’t mix, and that’s why I don't drink and drive/Because good grief, I’d knock out my teeth and have to kiss my smile goodbye.” 

Yet there’s an underlying melancholy too. Lyrically, yes, but more crucially in the shape and tone of the melodies, he’s yearning for faraway things: the ocean, lost love, a fulfillment he can’t articulate. “Vanilla Twilight” is a straightforward and plaintive song about missing someone with a synthesizer wobbling uneasily underneath; while the song’s closing hook fades out, Young watches the sun go down, feeling alone.

“The Saltwater Room” is a duet between Young and Minneapolis singer-songwriter Breanne Düren, who play a couple separated by distance, stranded on faraway beaches, listening to seashells just in case they hear the other’s voice. Düren is as goofy as Young—when she swoops in during the chorus, there’s a whiny cutesiness to her vowels that exactly complements his emphatic consonants. And when their voices intertwine, they achieve a wistful pop trick, the combination of clumsy singing and deep emotion. “So tell me darling, do you wish we’d fall in love?” she asks him, sounding awkward and miserable. The deadpan jangly acoustic guitar, which locks beautifully into a net of gleaming keyboards, provides cognitive dissonance. Why can’t their lives be as perfect as this music?

Ocean Eyes is hardly a pastoral idyll. Young dreams about the ocean, but it also terrifies him, since he’s defined it as the site for adult feelings and romance. That he’s using nature metaphors and childhood tropes to describe this dynamic means he’s still standing on the shore, longing to dive in. Like so much of the best pop music, Ocean Eyes is caught in a riveting but creepy liminal space. Happy birthday to a beautiful album—and an unsettling one.

Owl City had some dedicated fans in 2009.

Owl City had some dedicated fans in 2009. Star Tribune