We've come to expect a couple of things from Minnesota native Adam Young, the one-man band better known by the moniker Owl City. First, that no one in the mainstream music business today embraces irrepressibly upbeat, utterly wide-eyed optimism in quite the way Young does. Second, that his unabashed effervescence always comes accompanied by an infectious symphony of synthesizers melodically melding state-of-the-art EDM beats.
Both of those elements are still very much a part of Mobile Orchestra, Owl City's fifth full-length effort. What's surprising, however, is how Young is diversifying a bit this time around with regard to his guest contributors. A duet with Christian singer Britt Nicole expresses Young's Christian faith so plainly I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to hear their tune turn up in church worship sets. Then there's the album's biggest shocker: a collaboration with country singer Jake Owen on a track that ends up being perhaps the most unlikely country-EDM hybrid I've ever heard.
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"My Everything" pours out worship and trust, adoration and praise as Young sings of his Creator, "'Cause You're my light in the dark/And I sing with all of my heart/Hallelujah/My almighty God divine/Hallelujah/I am Yours and You are mine." Young then promises to "run to You and You alone" in moments when hope and strength waver.
Similarly clear in its expression of faith is the collaboration with Britt Nicole, "You're Not Alone," which testifies to God's grace ("I'm lost without You/I'll never doubt You/Your grace is beyond compare") and praises a loving God for saving us ("You rescued me, and I believe/That God is love and He is all I need"). Because of that lavish, transcendent love, Young vows, "I'll never wander on my own/For I am Yours until You call me home." He exhorts us to remember, "You're not alone," even in moments when we feel weak or lost. "Can't Live Without You" seems to be about God as well (though it could be heard as a love song to a woman). Young talks about someone who "reached down out of nowhere" to "put my life back together." He adds, "You're the only hope I'm clinging to/And I hope you know I can't live without you/ … I'm not broken anymore."
"Verge" features soul singer Aloe Blacc, who croons, "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."
"Thunderstruck" explores the joy of finding love ("I've never felt so wide awake/'Cause I'm wonderstruck/I love how you take my breath away/I'm thunderstruck"), while guest contributor Sarah Russell sings, "I find in the days when you're in my dreams/The orchestra plays the prettiest themes/And carefully you carry me away."
Even though Young describes himself as a "bird with a broken wing" on a song that claims that phrase as its name, in the end he's determined to face life's challenges without fear. "This Isn't the End" (which also appeared on Owl City's four-song 2014 EP Ultraviolet), poignantly narrates the story of a young woman coming to grips with the tragedy of her father's suicide. Eventually she's able to forgive him. The song admits, "Love is confusing, and life is hard," but nevertheless admonishes those wading through deep pain, "You fight to survive 'cause you made it this far."
Lines on the romantic track "Thunderstruck" could be heard as sexually suggestive: "I feel you glowing in the dark/When I collapse into your arms." After a painful breakup on "I Found Love," an unsettling children's rhyme turns up: "It's so dark in my mind/I cross my heart and hope to die." Plugged In-minded parents might not be crazy about the celebratory namechecking of such entertainments as R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series, Jurassic Park, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Home Alone and The Lion King on "Unbelievable."
Stylistic shockers clearly don't prompt any big content shockers here. Indeed, Adam Young's wistful innocence feels so countercultural at times that some in the mainstream press can't quite get their heads around it … and can't quite resist taking meanspirited shots at it, either. New York Daily News music reviewer Jim Farber quips dismissively, "Young delivers all these sentiments with wonder so wide-eyed you’d think he must be high." But in a world filled with songs and stories drenched in salacious sex, visceral violence and narcissistic nihilism, I'll take Owl City's wide-eyed wonder any day.