Owl City’s Adam Young is the rare Minnesota-born musician whose star has risen so quickly and whose music frolics so unapologetically into the mainstream that his relationship with his home state is all but nonexistent.
That detachment from any particular geographic location may be part of his widespread appeal. His MySpace popularity propelled him out of his basement in Anytown, USA, to the top of the Billboard charts at such an unbelievably fast rate that when he looks out into his adoring crowd and says “You made my dreams come true,” you actually believe him. His introverted, head-in-the-clouds demeanor and Lisa Frank lyricism have enraptured a sea of tweenage fans, and in the process have also elicited unending screeds of scorn from most listeners over the age of 20.
After seeing Owl City live at the Varsity on Friday night, I’m here to tell you that the hipster-hatred spewed at this musical project just isn’t going to cut it anymore. At the very least, its detractors are going to have to get more creative, because Adam Young is growing up and taking his music with him.
Those hoping to sneak a peek at the 26-year-old’s future won’t find much in his new single with Carly Rae Jepsen, “Good Time,” an Auto-Tuned, chart-climbing wad of bubblegum that will keep Young’s career tacked together for another promo cycle. No, the real clues are in his live show, where an increasingly confident Young is transitioning from his role as quintessential shy-guy-behind-a-laptop to full-fledged band leader, and whose backing musicians give his songs a much-needed low end and build into crashing waves of sound during extended jams that sound an awful lot like rock ‘n’ roll.
Longtime sidekick Breanne Düren’s mercury-plated pipes provide eerily perfect soprano counterpoints to Young’s pitch-corrected vocal melodies and fuel the gleeful sing-alongs for the 11- and 12-year-old girls in the audience, but it’s the rest of Young’s band — drummer Steve Goold (Bill Mike Band), guitarist Jasper Nephew (THE NOVEL i), and bassist and keyboardist Daniel Jorgensen (also a solo artist) — that give the music some depth. Those tween fans aren’t going to stay tweens forever, after all, and the new live band could help Owl City appeal to its fanbase even as its young listeners develop their sonic palettes.
At the very least, Young is providing his fans with their first introduction to rocking out. At Friday night’s sold-out show, the parents hung toward the back of the venue and let the all-ages crowd press in tight in front of the stage, each kid outfitted with their own shiny camera and pogoing and shrieking like sugared-up fiends. Ironically, it was on hit song “Fireflies,” pulled out halfway through the short set, when the crowd seemed most detached, as each person held up the phone or camera to capture the moment for posterity. It was in the show’s more unscripted moments — as in the sprawling, nine-minute set opener of “Cave In” smashed together with “The Real World,” or the thundering encore of “Umbrella Beach,” complete with Jorgensen banging on a tom-tom as it floated atop the crowd — that concergoers’ eyes were opened up wide and the music held them transfixed.
That opening opus invited the audience to escape into Young’s la-la-land with lines like “Reality is a lovely place but I wouldn’t want to live there,” but also taught them the benefits of staying in the moment and moving with the music as it unfolded on stage. At one point, the band’s instrumental interludes reminded me of orchestral folk-pop groups like Cloud Cult (who, coincidentally, also have roots in Young’s hometown of Owatonna), and Young looked pretty pleased to be swinging his guitar through the air and hammering out the rhythms with his new band.
The Adam Young of 2012 is one that is straddling two planes; on Friday night he appeared to be awakening to the reality that the music he once wrote as an escape from his dull suburban life has now filled his world with loud, pulse-quickening moments, and his assured stage presence and beaming (though still mostly generic) interactions with the audience would seem to indicate that he’s getting more and more comfortable in his own skin.
Is Owl City going to appeal to the average Current fan? Well, no, probably not. At least not right now. But the band is handily ushering the next generation of hyper-documentarian music fans into the club world and deftly working to mature their sound and seek out a chance for crossover appeal. For the legions of listeners still sweeping Minnesota’s most famous contemporary musician into the reject bin without a second thought, it might be time to start paying a little more attention.