On his 5th full length (overall, not including EP's sprinkled in between.), Adam Young, the voice and the mind behind Owl City seems to have lost his way, but is determined to find it again. More than a few publications have referenced the "twee pop" that he traffics in. Moreover, they have pointed to the fact that his 2012 effort "The Midsummer Station" pushed that style to the breaking point. This is where I diverge from that thought. That disc did traffic in some of the wispy sentimental gestures that are Young's bread and butter, but it traded the balance between just enough growth and forward looking music, combined with some of that "twee pop" innocence. On "Mobile Orchestra" that trade is gone, and Young is trying too hard to push further ahead, and at times it works, but more often than not he feels uncomfortable in the new shoes he wears, and the strain is painfully obvious.
Mobile Orchestra opens with a sung-to-the-rafters blast of EDM sugar as only Owl City (with help from Aloe Blacc) can do it. A made-for-graduation-party track, it is a bit overly simplistic, but gets by on that effervescent charm that makes you not care how simplistic it is because you're nodding your head anyways. The aforementioned troubles start not long after the thumps of the first track end. "I Found Love" feels torn between 2 purposes. Is it meant as a worship track? (As others we'll discuss here clearly are.) Or is it a love struck paean to a current or former romantic muse? It seems to tread a limbo between those 2 extremes and never really embraces either, which makes an otherwise well constructed track seem a bit directionless. "Thunderstruck" is equally stuck in this limbo, as it seems to be not in 2, but 3 separate positions - torn between the romantic muse, the worship track, and the twee pop of his past. "My Everything" steers the proceedings back into a more grounded position. On this track, Young blends the classic elements of a garden variety worship track with synthpop touches that are distinctly within his wheelhouse. It can come across a bit sappy at times, but if we're being honest about most of Owl City's output, some of his best work is dripping in sap. Not many can make a song sound good when that is the first thought the song inspires. Nevermind pulling it off when that musical style is fused to a worship song.
Young's Christian faith is more proudly on display on this album, including later on with "You're Not Alone." When all his talk of fireflies and rainbows and candy coated fantasy lands get to be too much, or too tired, this is a neat and tidy place for him to go. It is something that is meaningful to him, and that clearly informs his passions as a person and as a musician, which results in much more genuine music coming out of that thought. Certainly more so than the Hanson featuring "Unbelievable" - which, to borrow another publication's riff on it, sounds like a buzzfeed list of the 90's set to music. It could play like a fun trip down memory lane, perhaps, but is too obvious and easy, and doesn't really feel like a track where much effort was put into it.
Adam Young pulls off a more profound growth spurt with the album's uncharacteristically dark closer. "This Isn't The End" appeared earlier as a piece of the 4-track EP "Ultraviolet." Presented here, coming as it does at the back end of a set of largely upbeat tunes, it can come across a bit jarring. That said, it shows growth that is absent elsewhere. As Young quietly spins the story of a young girl coming to terms with her father's suicide, there is no doubt left - the twee songsmith who warbled about "Fireflies" just a few years back - that man has grown, and is willing to go deeper with his music's subject matter than he once did. How much of a gut punch it will be depends on the person, but it is to his credit that he is trying to stretch beyond his roots. While still a worthy album, the scattershot first half of this disc is enough to make the listener hope that he finds his balance again by the time album 6 rolls around.