Friday, 9 October 2015

On The Verge Of Touching The Sky

Let the tracks in Owl City's Mobile Orchestra move your heart to the edge of the earth and soar to the heavens

"I ain't to sure what I believe in, but I believe in what I see
And when I close my eyes, I see my whole life ahead of me..."

So begins "Verge", the first track in Owl City's latest album, Mobile Orchestra.

In May, before the album's release, Owl City frontman Adam Young tweeted (or "hooted", if you like) the lyric video for the "Verge" single, which revolved around graduating from college or university.

Aloe Blacc, his collaborator for the track, thought the graduation angle would be great for it; Young's was about weddings. Either angle works; the rousing anthemic track can be trotted out to celebrate a new phase in one's life. When R&B and hip-hop man Blacc heard the track, he felt that "it sounded like it could be ... quite inspirational."

Oh, very much, from the way it straps rockets to your heart and launches it to the "edge of the earth and we're touching the sky tonight..."

I finally got a copy of the album in September. So I'm a little slow. Or perhaps it's the music stores here.

The album's title was inspired by Young's realisation of how technology allowed him to stuff an orchestra's worth of sounds in a laptop – to him, a blessing and a curse – and his inability to switch off the creative side of his brain that's being bothered by an unfinished song or melody. One the bright side, he doesn't need to assemble a band of humans to scratch that musical itch.

His early stuff has been derided as light, fluffy and sweet; I'd call it pixie-dust electronica/synthpop. He even manages to make werewolves ("Wolf Bite", not in this album) and the aftermath of a father's suicide ("This Isn't the End") sound nice and cheerful – that is, if you don't pay too much attention to the lyrics.

From The Midsummer Station onwards, however, I feel he's moving even more towards experiments with different sounds and genres, and joint efforts with other artistes. Yuna worked with Young on "Shine Your Way", featured in the Dreamworks animated feature The Croods.

After "Fireflies", I've been looking forward to his new releases. I'm not a fan of every piece, but when there are more hits and misses in an album, it's worth the time and effort to own one.

The album kicks of with "Verge", which encapsulates the excitement and anticipation of one on the cusp of receiving one's degree. Listeners are transported back to the graduation hall (or whichever milestone), all nervous and elated at being on the threshold of a new life.

Blacc's resonant vocals in the middle (bridge, maybe?) convey the soaring pride, joy and conviction in the new graduate's pledge to make good and do good with the acquired skills and knowledge:

From now on there's no looking back
Full steam ahead on this one-way track
From this day forward I will make a promise
To be true to myself and always be honest
For the rest of my life, I will do what's right...

Much has also been said about Young's spirituality, and fans have been combing his work for signs of that. Several pieces in Mobile Orchestra leave no doubt that he's a good devout boy from Owatonna, Minnesota. "You are my light in the dark," he croons in "My Everything", "and I sing with all of my heart..."

This track is, Young said, "my attempt at summing up how important my faith is to me, and certainly how much influence it is, not just the decisions I make creatively as an artiste but every area of my life, you know ... across the whole board."

He also hopes it will provide encouragement to the "spiritually weary or tired" who need a nudge to get out of whatever fix they're in. "If somebody's mood is lightened for 30 seconds or a minute while they're driving to work because of this song, I felt my job is done."

I think part of it also has something to do with his insomnia, and having gone through several sleepless nights myself, I can empathise – especially if he's sleeping better these days. Sleep deprivation is not funny, and one is always glad when pleas for deliverance are answered.

Besides Blacc, he also collaborated with several other musicians and artistes for this album. "Unbelievable" – which sees Young and the guys from Hanson recalling stuff they had or experienced when they were kids, including the Fresh Prince, Jazzy Jeff, Lion King, Jurassic Park and "I won't lie, my friends and I were too legit to quit" – was bubbly straightforward fun.

"You're Not Alone" (with Britt Nicole), Young suggests, addresses and assuages the feelings of isolation and being distant one feels, even within a crowd or among a gathering of loved ones. The chorus says different, though.

The country-themed "Back Home" is also particularly emotive. This track, featuring US country singer Jake Owen, brings a tear (or ten) to the eye as the verses strum the heartstrings, compelling one to pack one's bags and say hello to tree lines, "free time and starry nights, to bonfires and fireflies".

And as one's vision blurs with each additional reminiscence, memories get addled and some of the lyrics start sounding different...

Back home there's a girl named Ong Joleen
A kopitiam off the main road that I've never been
And every red-dirt road is a trip down memory lane
And back home, where the palms grow thirty feet tall
And momma's chicken curry is the best of all
The casuarinas are waving till we come back home again

Even the last track, the previously mentioned "This Isn't the End", didn't dampen the overall mood created by the album. Instead, one is left with hope and optimism that things will be okay, that more and better Owl City tunes are still to come.

With great tracks and great replay value, Mobile Orchestra is the album to grab and keep you company in a traffic jam or, better yet, your balik kampung journey as you say goodbye to the street lights and city skyline.

♪ So pack your bags it's time to go~ ♫


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