Anish Aradhey

United States

Review: Seeing the World Through Owl City's 'Ocean Eyes'

October 21, 2019

    I slip on my worn headphones and dive into a watery abyss, feeling the rhythmic waves wash over me as I float into the vast musical ocean. This is the world of Owl City’s album Ocean Eyes (Deluxe Version). The notes pull me away from the sun rays permeating the surface, and I swim deeper, floating and dancing, wandering and searching, leaving lacy bubble trails in the water. As I progress into the salty cosmos, each tune is a sparkling pearl in a secluded oyster’s belly. So much in the world of music seems only half-done, only half-important, so I marvel at albums in which every track is memorable. Honest emotion and vibrant storytelling fill every drop of Ocean Eyes; altogether, this album is an authentic collection of upbeat escapes, reminiscent nostalgia, romance and heartbreak, insecurity, loneliness, and hopeful, whimsical narratives that immerse listeners in the tales within each tune. 

    Ocean Eyes was born out of emotional self-expression and desire to feel alive - the desire to (as the artist, Adam Young, writes in his blog) “taste the sky and dream in color.” Perhaps it was Young’s monotonous factory job that prompted him to explore such a vast and universal topic as the ocean, which is a major inspiration for the water-themed album. The songs reflect many aquatic scenes, though Young grew up far from any coast. (Young created most of these songs in the windowless basement of his parents’ home.) His landlocked Montana childhood made Young regard the ocean as mysterious and romantic, and those ideas permeate the magical sound of his major label debut. In the decade that has passed since its release, Young’s album remains emotionally saturated and resonant. Why? Ocean Eyes is not an album of songs, but a cluster of universal feelings and immortal stories tied together with a ribbon of notes and lyrics. And when you scrutinize the exterior and, more importantly, tear it back completely, you can see exactly what makes Ocean Eyes worth not only listening to, but experiencing.

    The observable effort in each of its components makes Ocean Eyes an admirable treasure. Young skillfully weaves his collection with narrative and figurative qualities. He fuses vivid metaphors and heartwarming similes into songs like “If My Heart Was a House”, Ocean Eyes’ emotionally-climactic second-to-last track. “If my heart was a compass, you’d be north,” Young sings during the chorus. This song takes a romantic approach on Young’s experiences, later incorporating lonely themes as he sings, “We got older and I should have known/That I’d feel colder when I walk alone.” The wide variety of colors Ocean Eyes includes completes its thematic palette and allows listeners to relate to Young personally. “My backbone is paper thin/Get me out of this cavern or I’ll cave in,” he sings about his insecurities in the album’s fast-paced opening track, “Cave In”. Here, Young reflects on his emotional artistic journey, from leaving home to chasing his dreams. In other, less sentimental songs, listeners experience narratives of Young’s life with detailed imagery. These songs include “Dental Care”, a lighthearted tale about a dentist appointment, where Young sprinkles in puns effortlessly. Young’s inventive, captivating use of homophones (“patience” and “patients”) and words with double meanings (“drill”) pulls listeners further into this story. Essentially, these narrative tunes are humorous, optimistic sparks among Ocean Eyes’ darker songs. Young’s unique phrases and rhyming schemes show off his lyrical and story-telling genius (who knew you could write a cheerful song about the dentist?), while his figurative lines show us a story instead of telling us one. Hence, listeners find themselves imagining scenes in the album, from thrilling dirt-bike rides to underwater waltzes. The lyrics seem to grow with each listening, making listeners pause and reconsider every song’s message through nuanced details. Overall, the album paints a fixating image of the artist’s imagination and emotions that invites listeners to experience the lyrical journeys again and again. Ocean Eyes’ well-rounded song content makes it a realistic representation of Young; it allows listeners to see the world through his eyes.

    Ocean Eyes is special because it is more than the sum of its parts. Each track evokes unique emotions, distinguishing the songs as individuals; however, Owl City’s signature style unites the album, creating a story (rather than a mere list). Strong electronic and percussion components characterize Owl City’s style, but acoustic sounds (especially piano music) balance these in several songs in Ocean Eyes. While songs like “Dental Care” include energetic dance sounds, Young’s vocals flow dreamily in other songs to match the self-reflective themes that the album explores, especially in “Cave In”. Ocean Eyes showcases Young’s creative and catchy choruses, and the songs usually exclude songwriting bridges, using transitions without vocals instead. These instrumental phrases serve as musical palate cleansers, preparing the listener for a new idea or theme. Ocean Eyes also includes nontraditional pop music elements, such as the unique 3⁄4 time signature exhibited in “If My Heart Was a House”. Interestingly, some of its songs don’t have a clear chorus, emphasizing the loose, experimental songwriting nature that allows Young to create his songs’ ethereal feel. Ultimately, Young’s savvy songwriting freedom creates diverse and memorable sounds that truly set the mood for Ocean Eyes.

    As a whole, Ocean Eyes reveals a dreamy figment of Adam Young’s story and imagination. This album reminds me of my own life because it has a variety of themes that unite to create a central structure, just like the many parts that make up myself. With its ideas about fear, loneliness, and personal morals, Ocean Eyes prompts me to reflect on my life and realize the complexity of relationships and the world. Underneath its beautiful, immersive lyrics live hopes and dreams we can all relate to - this album embodies raw emotion. As a whole, Ocean Eyes escapes reality; its sound will pull you out of your seat and plunge you into a deep ocean of warm, starry wonders. It will leave you breathless as you break the water’s sparkling surface.

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