Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Review: The Midsummer Station

Months ago when I heard that Owl City's new album, The Midsummer Station, was going to be characterized by "collaboration", a red flag went up immediately. Adam Young, Owl City's sole member and self-described "extreme introvert", has before now written his musical magic mostly by himself in his basement studio Sky Harbor and that seems to be the way he likes it. I also knew that Owl City's previous album All Things Bright and Beautiful had underperformed when compared with the surprise chart-topper Ocean Eyes, so I suspected these "collaborations" were studio shenanigans. When I saw the list of of people Adam young would be collaborating with, I knew I was right. Young has collaborated in the past, but always with fellow artists (e.g. Matt Thiessen on "Fireflies", Lights on "The Yacht Club"). The collaborations on The Midsummer Station mostly consisted of writers and producers who specialize in radio hits.

Now that I actually own The Midsummer Station and have listened to it multiple times, here is my track-by-track review: 

Dreams and Disasters: The Midsummer Station starts on a reasonably good note. I like the overall sound of "Dreams and Disasters", even if it gets a bit repetitive by the song's end.

Shooting Star: This one is an unintentional heart-breaker. Earlier in the year, Owl City released a preview EP (i.e. The Shooting Star EP) with four songs from The Midsummer Station and this is the last song I had listened to on it. The first three songs ("Gold", "Take It All Away", and "Dementia") sounded nothing like Owl City and I realized I was right about the studio shenanigans and was feeling depressed. When I played "Shooting Star" my expectations were low, but when I heard the soft synth intro, my heart stopped. It sounded like Owl City! The first verse was good, keeping the soft sound and having Owl City's trademark dreamy lyrics... and then the chorus happened. The booming beat kicked in, the self-esteem boosting lyrics began and from there "Shooting Star" turns into a Katy Perry song. The intro still breaks my heart; it's like listening to a bird stuck in a cage.

Gold: This is the only song I flat-out don't like on the album. The overly-simplistic chorus doesn't sound pleasant to my ears at all. I'm generally not a fan of booming beat songs (for lack of a better term) and this is no exception.

Dementia: Pop punk is one of my favourite genres , so naturally I like this song. Adam Young worked with Mark Hoppus from Blink 182 on this one. It still sounds nothing like Owl City, but at least its a genre that I like.

I'm Coming After You: This one has a "Deer In the Headlights"/Relient K-ish vibe and I like it for the most part. The siren sound effects on the chorus are kind of... embarrassing though. It should have either been an actual siren, or no siren at all (maybe a better option).

Speed of Love: A decent song, but not very memorable.

Good Time: I'll admit it. I quite like this song. It's really catchy and fun. It adds some pep to my step, but it doesn't give me the fulfilling sense of happiness that classic Owl City does.

Embers: Like most songs on The Midsummer Station, I have mixed feelings on "Embers". Overall, I like the verses (Adam Young pulls off hyperbole very well), but the chorus comes off as trite to me. It's trying too hard to be a self-help song and doesn't sound natural. I swear this song was written by the "It Gets Better" campaign.

Silhouette: Good old "Silhouette", the only song that Adam Young wrote by himself. This is understandably the the most personal song on The Midsummer Station and one of its treasures.

Metropolis: Many reviewers are saying that "Silhouette" is the song that sounds the most like Owl City (some even say it's the only song on here that sounds like Owl City). It seems the obvious choice as it's the only song written exclusively by Adam Young, but honestly I think "Metropolis" is closest to the Owl City vibe that I've come to know and love. Yes, this song is co-written, but it's co-written with none other than Matt Thiessen from Relient K. Adam Young and Matt Thiessen have worked together in the past ("The Bird and the Worm", "Fireflies", "Tidal Wave", and "Plant Life"). Whenever they write together, Thiessen's handiwork is evident, but the song still remains undeniably Owl City-esque. "Metropolis" is no exception. Sound-wise, "Metropolis" has the sweeping synth and string melodies that Adam Young does so well and is noticeably absent from the rest of the album (the rest of the album typically settles for club beats) and combines it with a Euro-trance beat remniscient of "The Yacht Club". Lyrically, this song reminds me of early Owl City (e.g. "The Technicolor Phase", "Swimming in Miami"). "Metropolis" is my favourite song on the album by far and I suspect this would have been the overall feel of The Midsummer Station had the collaborations not happened.

Take It All Away: The Midsummer Station ends on an interesting note. "Take It All Away" sounds like a ninties boyband, but it's surprisingly endearing.

Overall, I'm surprised I liked The Midsummer Station as much as I do. After hearing The Shooting Star EP and seeing who Adam Young was "collaborating" with, I was expecting to hate this album. Now that I've heard it, I have to admit, for what it's trying to do, it does it well. The Midsummer Station is mostly a collection of fun pop songs that will get your foot tapping. However my ultimate disappointment with this album is not that it's so bad, but that Owl City's old stuff was so good. Owl City was like nothing I had ever heard before and "Fireflies" was a total break from every other radio phenomenon. Owl City evokes a precious innocence and beauty that is hard to find anywhere, much less on Top 40 radio. Only Adam Young could create the musical magic of Owl City, and I think that his incredible talent and imagination is going to waste on The Midsummer Station. Even though most of the songs are enjoyable, they're very forgettable and unoriginal. If I didn't know who Owl City was and I heard a song like "Gold" or "Speed of Love" on the radio I wouldn't take any notice. I might even change the channel. I'm hesitant to even call most of these songs "Owl City songs" (except for "Metropolis" and "Silhouette"), because other than Adam Young's voice there's little to no similarity between these songs and his older songs. Lyrically, this album tries too hard to be a self-esteem booster, which I don't think is necessary. I've heard a few stories of a pre-The Midsummer Station Owl City song saving someone from suicide and I believe it. Listening to Owl City can give the listener a new faith in anything from life to God to beauty. He never had to say that his listeners are "shooting stars" or "it gets better", because the focus wasn't on ourselves, it was on the beauty around us (I'm trying not to sound cheesy here, but it's hard to describe my love for Owl City's music without being cheesy); be it a beach, architecture, a hot air balloon, or the Northern Lights. Heck, a song like "The Yacht Club" doesn't exactly make the listener feel good about themselves and is actually pretty self-deprecating, but it never fails to put a smile on my face. But again, we aren't the point. Here's hoping Adam Young will be able to go back to his solo roots (with the occasional collaboration with a fellow artist), and the sounds of Owl City will be heard again. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

List One Completed

With the completion of The Communist Manifesto comes the end of the first reading list of the Great Books of the Western World. One down, nine to go. When I started I wasn't sure how long it would take for me to get through the list, although I was hoping for six months (which, if I was consistent would mean cutting the ten year plan into a five year plan). In reality it took me nine months (from the beginning of February to the end of October).

The list started off with a bang, and I read Plato's Apology and Crito, Aristophanes' The Clouds and Lysistrata, the selection from Plato's Republic, and the selections from Aristotle's Ethics and Politics in the first month. The reading selections were relatively short and I enjoyed nearly all of them, so you can forgive me for thinking I had the six month hope in the bag. March brought me back to earth as I slowly made my way through the selections in Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans and read the first half of the selection from St. Augustine's Confessions. I enjoyed these two books, but they were denser than the books from the previous month and I realized that this endeavour wouldn't be as easy as I naively thought it would be. In April I finished the Confessions selection, flew through Machiavelli's The Prince and met my nemesis: Rabelais' Gargantua and Pantagruel. Gargantua and Pantagruel was the most challenging of the books selected to get through as I find it overly dry and unrewarding. Through May and June, I slowly made my way through various Montaigne essays. In July I read Hamlet (as you can see my progress was slowing down significantly). In August, the reading list turned towards the subject of politics (joy) and I read Locke's Second Treatise On Civil Government and the selection from The Social Contract. September brought a temporary reprieve from politics as I read the selection from Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but it was back to politics for the remainder of the month with various American State Papers. Finally in October, I read the selection from Smith's The Wealth of Nations and Marx's Communist Manifesto.

So how did it go? I thoroughly enjoyed myself from Plato's Apology pretty much straight through to The Prince (I find Aristotle a little dry and, while I enjoyed them, the Confessions and Plutarch's "Lives" took me a while to get through). I strongly disliked Rabelais, Montaigne was interesting for the most part but time-consuming, and I enjoyed Hamlet. The last few months, though, became somewhat of a chore. Politics (along with Economics) is not my favourite subject by any stretch and the last chunk of the reading list focused on little else (with the blessed exception of Gibbon).

List One seemed primarily concerned with government. In Apology and Crito, I saw Socrates contemplating whether or not to submit himself to his government's unjust sentence and why a life in government wasn't for him. The Republic showed Plato's ideal government. Obviously Aristotle's Politics is concerned with government. The selections from Plutarch's "Lives" showed four successful leaders and governors. Machiavelli explained a practical method for running a government. Gargantua and Pantagruel poked fun at established government (among other things). Some of Montaigne's essays touched on government. And the readings from Locke, Rousseau, the American State Papers, and Marx were primarily concerned with government. Gibbon's "Decline and Fall" gave a historical account of the fall of a particular government. A secondary theme seemed to be sexuality and the powerful effect it has on our lives. Lysistrata was about a sex strike (and how poorly it went), Montaigne's essay "Upon a Few Verses of Virgil" was about the influence of Venus, Augustine lamented sexual temptation, and teenage angst lead Ophelia to commit suicide in Hamlet. Gargantua and Pantagruel, of course, was filled to the brim with this theme.

Overall List Two looks more inviting to me than List One did. I'm especially looking forward to Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Plato, Lucretius, Pascal (the Pensees, not the Treatise on the Arithmetical Triangle), and Swift. Here's the list:

1. HOMER: The Iliad

2. AESCHYLUS: Agamemnon, Choephoroe, Eumenides

3. SOPHOCLES: Oedipus the King, Antigone

4. HERODOTUS: The History [Book I-II]

5. PLATO: Meno

6. ARISTOTLE: Poetics

7. ARISTOTLE: Ethics [Book II; Book III, Ch. 5-12; Book VI, Ch. 8-13]

8. NICOMACHUS: Introduction to Arithmetic

9. LUCRETIUS: On the Nature of Things [Book I-IV]

10. MARCUS AURELIUS: Meditations

11. HOBBES: Leviathan [Part I]

12. MILTON: Areopagitica

13. PASCAL: Pensées [Numbers 72, 82-83, 100, 128, 131, 139, 142-143, 171, 194-
195, 219, 229, 233-234, 242, 273, 277, 282, 289, 298, 303, 320, 323, 325, 330-331,
374, 385, 392, 395-397, 409, 412-413, 416, 418, 425, 430, 434-435, 463, 491, 525-
531, 538, 543, 547, 553, 556, 564, 571, 586, 598, 607-610, 613, 619-620, 631, 640,
644, 673, 675, 684, 692-693, 737, 760, 768, 792-793]

14. PASCAL: Treatise on the Arithmetical Triangle

15. SWIFT: Gulliver's Travels

16. ROUSSEAU: A Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

17. KANT: Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals

18. MILL: On Liberty

Monday, October 22, 2012

"The Communist Manifesto": Enslaved to the Machine or the State?

When I glanced over List One of the Great Books, my eyes gravitated towards the final book, The Communist Manifesto, not so much out of excitement, but out of curiosity. Before, I begin I should say that politically I'm midway between the Left and the Right (moving slightly one way or the other depending on the day) and I'm typically not a fan of the far Right or Left. Communism, of course, is on the far Left of the spectrum.

Marx laments the bourgeoisi (middle class) treating the proletariat (lower class) as mere pieces in the machine of industry. According to Marx, Communism is primarily about the abolition of private property and the market, inevitably creating a classless society. Marx is convinced that Communism is not only possible, it is inevitable and the proletariat are destined to rise against their bourgeoise oppressors to create this Communist state, presumably worldwide. Marx says that history has always been a story of class oppression and Communism is the ending of said oppression.

I think the main point where Marx and I diverge is the amount of faith we have in humanity. Marx's faith in the human spirit seems unshakeable, whereas I take a more pessimistic view (I'm only pessimistic concerning humanity as a whole; I don't consider myself a pessimist overall). Even during the readings in List One, I was confronted with a few reasons to be wary of the majority. In Apology I saw the people execute Socrates, in the Gospel of Matthew I saw the people crucify Christ, and the people were spurred on to slaughter aristocratic men, women, and children partly because of The Social Contract. So, no, I don't have faith in humanity - not even the majority of humanity.

Communism, as Marx imagines it, sounds appealing in some ways (not in all ways), but I question whether it could ever be brought to reality. History has shown how Communism has worked in the real world and, while it could be argued that the time is not yet ripe for true Marxian Communism, I honestly doubt that day will ever come. Marx offers very little practical advice on how to actually run a Communist society and a controlling intelligentsia seems inevitable to me (e.g. "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others" like in Animal Farm).

Capitalism may not be perfect by any stretch, but I personally have no cause to complain. The freedoms I care about (e.g. freedom of expression, assembly, religion, and the priviledge of having a place to call my own and a family), I have, but I wouldn't have in a modern Communist state. The proletariat may be enslaved to the Capitalist machine, but I have trouble not seeing the citizens of a Communist country enslaved to the State, enslaved to the herd.

Ultimately, I prize individuality over equality and I'd rather face oppression than march to the beat of the same drum as every other citizen and I would rather live in a world divided with independent thought and beliefs than a peaceful world where everyone is the same. 

Thursday, October 18, 2012

"The Wealth of Nations" [Ch. 1-9]

The Wealth of Nations was a challenge to get through. Although I only had to read the first nine chapters (about 78 pages), it took me about four weeks to finish. Economics is really not my strong suit and it took extra effort to comprehend Smith's words and, now that I'm done, I feel like nearly everything I read has already slipped from my memory.

Consequently, I don't have much to say on this one. I enjoyed the parts when Smith drew on historical examples to prove his points, because of my interest in history, but I found The Wealth of Nations very dry reading overall.

I also think I'm getting Enlightenment fatigue. The last few authors on the Great Books reading list (Locke, Rousseau, Thomas Jefferson, the Federalist authors, and Smith) have all been Enlightenment thinkers and I'm beginning to crave a change of scenery.