Ocean Eyes presents a unique and often striking vision for pop.
Adam Young fascinates me—has fascinated me since the very beginning of high school, when his “Fireflies” was a hit. Here is an artist not particularly concerned with good taste and self-awareness, who in 2016 dished out a gleaming tribute to Mount Rushmore with track titles like “Shrine of Democracy,” who opened “Fireflies”’ 2009 parent album Ocean Eyes with the inauspicious line “Please take a long hard look through your textbook/ Because I’m history.” Yet beneath his bashful smile and bad jokes stirred the soul of an auteur. During his adolescence in Minnesota, Young was involved in countless projects, many of which still exist, and produced a few good-to-great albums of bright, beat-heavy ambient as Port Blue. And, despite its often terrible songwriting, Ocean Eyes presents a unique and often striking vision for pop.
Drums skitter and echo. Synths sparkle and fizz and curl into bright leads that slide just slightly from note to note. The pianos are clearly MIDI presets, but that just contributes to the pleasant feeling of hearing this music broadcast over a seaside hotel’s intercom system. Though the way Young pronounces every vowel like he’s squeezing the last drop of moisture from it places his work identifiably within the ‘00s emo continuum, his music is more informed by ambient electronica than anything else: artists like the Album Leaf and Ulrich Schnauss, both of whom appeared on an excellent 2015 Young album as Color Therapy. Owl City was endlessly compared to the Postal Service early on, but Young claimed to only be a casual fan, and I believe him. It’s convergent evolution, the product of a singer-songwriter with a polite, suburban, more-than-a-little-emo sensibility meeting up with beats from the Y2K ambient-verse.
Young uses Auto-Tune throughout Ocean Eyes, and I’ve never heard anyone else use it like he does. These aren’t the sharp angles of his crunk-aping contemporaries in the more debauched corners of the emo-electronic Venn diagram. It’s more like his voice has been oiled, gliding nonchalantly from one note to another much like his synth leads, and it gives his vocals an alluring if unsettling shimmer. This on the one hand makes him sound universes away from his regular duet guest Brienne Düren, who sounds human. It also means that when he bares his soul to us, like when he describes the confidence God gives him on “Tidal Wave,” we’re taken aback. Ocean Eyes lives in fantasy for so much of his runtime that when he lets his guard down, we know he’s not being “emo” but is actually talking about what’s on his mind.
An instrumental version of Ocean Eyes would be on my regular rotation. Even his best Port Blue and Color Therapy material is scarcely as evocative as these instrumentals. Yet his criteria for a good lyric are baffling: he’s fond of terrible puns, none worse than “Riding a dirtbike down the turnpike/ Always takes its toll on me.” Of course, that’s right before the most breathtaking instrumental passage on the album, where the synth ebbs across the sky like a radio signal and the drums splinter into brittle, bone-like shapes. I want to live in the moments on Ocean Eyes when Young’s not singing. But if the same guilelessness that leads to Young’s lapses of taste is responsible for him dreaming up such an inviting world, perhaps we should be thankful.