Music

What Owl City can learn from The Cars (and vice versa)

John J. Thompson

There is certainly a difference between cynicism and the wisdom that comes from experience. Likewise there is a definite difference between youthful, optimistic faith and Pollyannaish naivete. How to walk those lines and gracefully transition from one to the next is one of the great challenges of the Christian life. Two recent pop records offer interesting examples of aging gracefully and growing in wisdom and grace – whether they realize they are doing it or not.

The Cars / 'Move Like This'

The Cars broke up in 1988, the same year I graduated from high school. They went from edgy new-wave groundbreakers to one of the biggest pop bands in the world in the same amount of time it took me to move from sixth grade to junior college. Their last couple albums lost me – or maybe it was that more important music like U2, The Call and Midnight Oil found me – but I don’t remember shedding any tears when they folded. In fact, I don’t think I noticed.

In the years that followed, however, my appreciation for Ric Ocasek’s brilliant songwriting and the band’s flawless pop Dadaism grew on me all over again. There are some pretty prescient observations about the vapid '80s woven throughout those songs, as well as some of the best melodies in all of pop music. Thus when I heard they were re-convening the surviving members (original bassist and co-vocalist Ben Orr died in 2000), I was cautiously optimistic.

Fortunately, Ocasek and the gang sound as if they never quit. The compositions, as well as the instrumentation, would have sounded right at home in 1985, but the production is all 2011. The melodies, the wit, the languid hipness of Ocasek are all in full form. Quirky pop, massive power-chord rock, stacked vocal harmonies and ironic vocal delivery serve up songs and sentiments that are snide, sensitive and emotionally right on. Satirical observations on modern pop culture abound, as well as brutally honest confessions of past failures and unrealized dreams that only hard won experience in the trenches will allow.

"Move Like This" is worth finding and enjoying, not only for old-times sake, but to remember what it was like when pop music was crafted by professional artists with substance and style. This one is currently on-track to be one of my top five records of the year.

Owl City / 'All Things Bright And Beautiful'

I wonder if all the haters feel even the slightest bit guilty bashing Owl City. Certainly, pointing out the lightweight nature of evanescent shimmer-pop like Adam Young’s is about as challenging, or satisfying, as beating up the wimpiest kid in your school. I wonder if anyone back the early '80s thought disposable pop ditties by Soft Cell, Dexy’s Midnight Runners or Naked Eyes would still be loved 30 years later. I wonder if anyone used the word “important” and Bananarama in the same sentence. I wonder.

I wonder if Young cares a lick about hipster critics and angsty teens who so enjoy taking his name in vain. From the sound of his second at-bat, "All Things Bright and Beautiful," it seems not.

Though he has certainly enriched his collection of sounds and takes full advantage of a real recording studio, Young breaks very little new ground since his breakthrough debut. "All Thing Bright and Beautiful" is a collection of 13 more synth-driven, optimistic, romantic pop ditties and one light acoustic ballad. No drama. No screaming. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t growth and progression. The layers are much more interesting. The lyrics, while still sticky-sweet much of the time, manage more clever moments and witty observations than his bedroom-recorded debut. Young even manages to concoct an unlikely but catchy single from references to the Challenger disaster (complete with Ronald Reagan sample) and turn it into a worship song to God (“Galaxies.”)

No, this record won’t win over any critics. This is the kind of music bad reviews were invented for. Hopefully Young still won’t care and will continue to serve up feel-good pop to young fans who just aren’t ready or interested in meditating on all the ugliness, pain, fear and violence in the world. And it doesn't hurt that his faith is more intentionally articulated through this mainstream pop record than on his debut. I have a good feeling many of his fans will be humming these songs as vigorously 30 years from now as I still hum along to The Cars’ “Magic.”

“JJT” has been chasing the thread dangling between eternal truths and temporal creative experiences for nearly three decades. He is a writer, a businessman, a father, an artist and a seeker. Read more about him at JohnJThompson.com.

Topics: Music, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure