Plastic People
On How to Be Synthetic and Sincere

I’ve had a long and complex relationship with synthesizers.

I fell in love with them when I was a kid. My first band, if you want to call it that, consisted of me, my next door neighbor, and a Casio sampling keyboard. We had heard “Pump Up the Volume” by M/A/R/R/S and said to ourselves, “We could do that.” We were 12 years old. What did we know?

My love of synthesized sounds came from the hot music of the day. My Rosetta Stone was Harold Faltermeyer’s “Axel F,” a keyboard melody so indelible that I bet at least half of you are humming it right now. It was my grandmother who taught me how to play piano, but it was Harold Faltermeyer who initially made me want to play keys. And in the early ‘80s, every band had a keyboard player, even the hard-rocking ones like Bon Jovi and Europe.

I loved that stuff, but I also loved the Pet Shop Boys, who crashed into my world with “What Have I Done to Deserve This” in 1987. It was a duet with Dusty Springfield. Did I have any idea who Dusty Springfield was? No, I did not. You’d think a musically-inclined person like me would have looked her up, and perhaps heard Dusty in Memphis before I was 16. And if I were making this story up, that’s how it would go. But no, my Pet Shop Boys fascination just led me to other synth-pop bands, and eventually to the king of the keyboards. No, not Keith Emerson, you silly person. I’m talking about Yanni.

When I was a teen, I adored Yanni. I bought all his albums on cassette. I scored my high school films with his goopy instrumentals. I had enough residual Yanni love in my later teen years that I brought his cassettes to college, and bought Live at the Acropolis when it came out in 1994. How, you may be asking, did I reconcile this with my teenage metalhead phase? I don’t know. I just did. It’s Yanni, and you don’t question it.

But Yanni and the Pet Shop Boys were the only constants. Over time, I developed a strange aversion to synthetic anything in music. I think it coincided with the Seattle grunge explosion, when “real” music was made with guitars and drums, and “pop” was electronic drums and keyboards. I still liked pop music, but I hid it, holding fast to the notion that programming wasn’t playing, and anything synthetic couldn’t be as good as anything organic. I clung to that for a depressingly long time, despite bands like Garbage, who seemed to exist mainly to prove that those divisions didn’t.

Of course, at the same time that I was dissing any band that didn’t play acoustics and angst, I was secretly listening to an awful lot of synth-pop. Not sure why I thought it was an illicit thing, but I think I equated synthesizer music with falsity, with insincerity. I don’t remember how I snapped out of that, but I’m glad I did. In fact, after college, I dove into electronic music pretty heavily. I even made my own – hours and hours of it, some trance-like and simplistic, some ass-achingly complex, as if to prove that electronic music could be “real” music.

These days, synthesizers and I have an understanding. I think they’re a remarkable tool, when they’re not being used to emulate something organic instruments do better. Synth strings and horns usually leave me cold, because they’re no substitute for real strings and horns. (I’ll admit here that Mark Kelly of Marillion sometimes overuses the string patches.) But when synthesizers are used to create sounds only they can make, they mesmerize me. Take an artist like Ronnie Martin, who goes by Joy Electric. He uses analog synthesizers exclusively because nothing else could spin the sound he hears in his head.

And it’s become abundantly clear that synthetic music doesn’t necessarily mean synthetic emotions. In fact, some electronic music is fathoms deeper and more honest than most of the confessionals made by six-string troubadours. As with virtually any kind of music, it’s all about how much of yourself you put into it, how much of a reflection of the artist the art is allowed to become.

And so after all that, I’m going to talk about Owl City.

If there’s a poster child for insincere electronic music, as far as most of the world is concerned, it’s probably Adam Young. Over three albums as Owl City (and one as Sky Sailing), Young has put forth a twee, faintly ridiculous vision of electro-pop. It’s sugary-sweet, and full of magical allusions and terrible puns, and those things – plus the ever-present Auto-Tune on Young’s voice – are take-it-or-leave-it propositions. Most have decided to leave it.

It’s no secret I’ve taken some grief for defending Owl City. But I’m not ashamed. Despite lazy comparisons to Ben Gibbard’s one Postal Service album (to which Adam Young’s music bears only the slightest resemblance), I find his work defiantly individual. I can’t think of anyone else who would make an album like Ocean Eyes, honestly. There’s too much whimsy, too much effervescence, too many anti-radio-pop decisions for it to be anything but an artistic vision. “Fireflies” was a fluke. If “The Bird and the Worm” or “Umbrella Beach” had become a hit, that would have been amazing.

I’ve always felt that Adam Young puts a lot of himself into Owl City. And if you’ve ever wondered what he would sound like if he really did aim for the charts and the teen girls’ hearts, well, you only need to listen to his disappointing fourth album, The Midsummer Station. It’s everything Ocean Eyes was accused of being: pandering, hit-obsessed and phony to the core.

The sad thing is that Owl City still sounds about the same, and it’s a sound I love. Young’s laptop-pop still burbles along confidently, his voice still innocent and Auto-Tuned. There are a few more guitars, particularly on the laughable half-punk embarrassment “Dementia” (featuring Mark Hoppus of Blink-182, no less), but casual listeners probably won’t notice much difference between The Midsummer Station and any of Young’s other records.

But it’s there, and it’s enormous. Young has worked with a veritable army of co-writers and producers on this album, and they’ve surgically removed his whimsy and replaced it with boring, straightforward dance-pop. There isn’t much to separate this from your average mainstream club record. If you don’t notice much difference between something like “Speed of Love” and Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” that’s because there isn’t much. And just to drive the point home, Jepsen herself appears on the putrid “Good Time,” one track later.

Here’s the first verse of that song: “Woke up on the wrong side of the bed, what’s up with this Prince song in my head, hands up if you’re down to get down tonight, ‘cause it’s always a good time…” Later, Jepsen takes a whole verse to say she “freaked out, dropped my phone in the pool again, checked out of my room, hit the ATM, let’s hang out if you’re down to get down tonight…” Anyone who made fun of “Friday” but likes this is just fooling themselves.

The lyrics on the whole record are this average, this straightforward, this boring. “Shooting Star” (produced by the same folks who made Katy Perry’s “Firework”) is exactly the vague anthem of hope you think it is: “When the sun goes down and the lights burn out then it’s time for you to shine brighter than a shooting star, so shine no matter where you are…” People shine all over this record – observe this bit of “Gold,” which goes, “You’ll never be far, I’m keeping you near, inside of my heart, you’re here, go on, it’s gotta be time, you’re starting to shine…” Although it’s better than “Dementia,” on which he actually claims that “dementia is driving me crazy.” Good lord.

Why am I harping on lyrics, when they never mean that much to me? Because Owl City’s lyrics were a reflection of Adam Young himself, geeky and funny and full of joy. And the lyrics on The Midsummer Station are a reflection of a marketing push, an attempt to turn this strange, quirky artist into a pop star. It’s a misguided effort, one that has resulted in a soulless album. Late in this record, Young pulls out “Silhouette,” an achingly pretty piano ballad with what may very well be a heartfelt lyric about loneliness. It’s the one moment here that sounds honest, yet its presence on an album this ill-conceived makes me doubt it. And that’s a bad thing.

I’m never going to hate the Owl City sound. But somehow, that makes this even worse – a sound I love is being used to prop up these empty songs. I’ll give Young credit for trying to pull out of the tailspin near the end – “Silhouette” and “Metropolis” are decent. But they can’t make up for the bulk of the record (and the awful closing track, “Take It All Away”), which wallows in its own insincerity, hoping for mainstream success. It’s already happening – “Good Time” is a hit, meaning he’ll probably keep on walking down this path. More’s the pity, because Owl City used to be something pretty special.

If, after suffering through The Midsummer Station, you’re on the hunt for an electronic album with a beating heart and a free flying soul, well, I have one for you. It’s the second full-length from Michael Angelakos, who goes by Passion Pit, and it’s called Gossamer. Passion Pit used to be a band, but for this record, Angelakos dropped all pretense, dove in on his own (with drummer Chris Zane), and came up with a wonderfully individual electro-pop masterwork.

Gossamer is as autobiographical, as confessional as the starkest folk record you could name. It deals directly with Angelakos’ struggle with depression, and with the healthy relationship that has pulled him out of it. This isn’t some mawkish love-conquers-all sopfest, though – it’s real and dark and unflinching stuff. Take “I’ll Be Alright,” in which Angelakos and his love split up: “I’ve made so many messes and this love has grown so restless, your whole life’s been nothing but this, I won’t let you go loveless, I’ll be alright…” This is the album’s second track, and already things seem hopeless.

“Cry Like a Ghost” is similarly dark, sending Angelakos to the brink: “See what I’ve done now, I don’t understand, she says I screamed and that I raised my hand, I never meant to, I wasn’t even there, I never meant to, I would never dare…” He asks his love to marry him in “On My Way,” and three tracks later he’s declaring that “Love is Greed.” The whole mess comes to a head on “It’s Not My Fault, I’m Happy,” in which he learns to push through the madness of his life and realize the joy he has. The final track is called “Where We Belong,” and it’s a lovely summing-up moment: “All the things you can’t control should never destroy the love one holds.” When Angelakos sings “I found a place where we belong,” seconds before the record ends, it’s an emotional catharsis worth celebrating.

Even the seemingly disconnected opening song, the awesome “Take a Walk,” is ripped right from Angelakos’ family history. It’s the story of an immigrant trying to make a new life for his family in America, and even though it includes a few clunky lines (“But then my partner called to say the pension funds were gone”), it’s a remarkable summation of the plight of millions, rendered in specific human terms.

All of this is wrapped up in danceable, glorious electronic pop. “I’ll Be Alright” is practically club-ready, with explosive drums and pulsing, thumping bass. There’s a real string section in here somewhere, but it’s all been processed and synthesized. “Carried Away” is a mid-tempo keyboard festival, and “Mirrored Sea” is probably what Arcade Fire would sound like if they used nothing but synths. (There’s a lot of Ronnie Martin in this one, too.) Over all of this, Angelakos sings in a clear and forceful falsetto – he’s particularly effective on the soulful slow jam “Constant Conversations.”

Musically, this is just as plastic and elastic as Owl City, but there’s a tremendous sincerity to it that wipes the floor with Adam Young’s effort. And that makes all the difference. While I shudder at the thought of pressing play on The Midsummer Station again, I will treasure Gossamer, and study it, and wear it out, and wrap my life around it. That’s what the best art inspires, and the tools used to create it are secondary. What matters is that you mean it.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.