Owl City has a very bubblegum sound, and I suspect his "Top 40" success and affiliations (a duet with Carly Rae Jepsen, songs in films like The Croods and Wreck-It Ralph, etc.) may lead some fans of electronic music in general to disregard him*. I do think he's moved toward a more generic radio-friendly sound over time, which I don't care for quite as much, but I absolutely love his first couple of albums. If it helps, think of him as the new Erasure.
If you don't like Owl City, that really is fine with me, but if you disregard artists based on their popularity, I'd suggest that you may be Doing It Wrong™
We're going to look at his breakout single "Fireflies", which I view as a quintessential example of radio-friendly pop. It was released about six years ago, so it's not super current, but I don't think the parameters of radio-friendliness have changed terribly much since then. Regardless of whether you personally have any interest in creating something radio-friendly, I think its useful, or at the very least interesting, to have an idea of what "radio-friendly" actually means.
Intro (8) - 0:00
A couple of chipper synth lines set the tone for the song. The most important thing from the "radio-friendly" angle is that it's short. A lot of my favorite songs have pretty lengthy Intros, but a lot of my favorite songs have never been radio hits.
Verse (8) - 0:21
Drums, bass, and vocals kick in. Notice that this section is also 8 bars. In fact, every part of this song is 8 bars. That allows for a fully fleshed out Verse-Chorus structure in just about three and half minutes, which is frequently cited as the ideal length of a song intended for radio play.
Chorus (8) - 0:43
This Chorus is why I decided to do a blog entry on this song.
I subscribe to the belief that people like music that's familiar in most ways, but surprising in a few. If we really liked new things as much as we claim, Experimental subgenres would be far more popular than they are. One solid musical rule is that in any given Verse-Chorus song, the Choruses will be more intense, higher energy, than the Verse. For the rest of this song, that rule will hold true. But, for this one Chorus, the energy goes way down. Most of the elements in the mix seem to keep playing, but they're band-passed...i.e., it sounds like they're coming through an old telephone, so they're thin and quiet. I think this is a brilliant example of subverting the listener's expectations.
Verse (8) - 1:04
The arrangement is slightly fuller than the first Verse, but it's generally very close to the first Verse.
Chorus (8) - 0:43
This is what we expect a Chorus to sound like...a huge sound with cymbals crashing all over the place...and it's all the more powerful because we got teased with just the melody the first time around. If you look closely at the waveform, this section is practically a solid rectangle of sound. This is what we call "losing the loudness war", but that's another subject entirely. This ends with a quiet single-bar Fill, which you could view as a microscopic Break, and then goes into the...
Bridge (8) - 1:49
This doesn't really feel like a Bridge. It's more like a variant version of the Verse. The arrangement is pretty much the same as the Verses', and I'm pretty sure the chord progression is identical. The only difference is that there's a different vocal melody and cadence.
Verse (8) - 2:11
Chorus (8) - 2:32
Chorus (8) - 2:53
The climax of the song is a double Chorus. The arrangement of the second Chorus is slightly thicker, but fundamentally the same as the first.
Outro (10) - 3:15
The vocal line from the Chorus is repeated by a quiet, solo voice (it's always been harmonized up to this point, even in the first Chorus), with only piano and light pads by way of accompaniment. If you were just looking at a chord chart, this would be indistinguishable from tacking on another Chorus, but the sparse, gentle arrangement contrasts with the hugeness of the previous Chorus so that it's undeniably playing a different role within the song.
This section contradicts my earlier assertion that this song is composed entirely of 8-bar sections. So does that single bar Break/Fill between the second Chorus and the Bridge, I suppose. Songs are full of little "one bar here, one bar there" moments, and exceptions to all the other rules. I don't think these particular exceptions detract from my overall assessment.
A couple of closing, unordered thoughts:
- Since the artist name is "Owl City", it's probably more appropriate to refer to "they" than "he", but it's a solo project, so I think of it as "he". This is hypocritical, since I don't think of myself as being "Longing for Orpheus", which is my solo project.
- I think there's a very interesting comparison to be made between the first two Owl City albums, "Maybe I'm Dreaming" and "Ocean Eyes". A couple of songs were included on both albums, and you can hear a significant contrast in the mastering between the two albums. The latter, which was a major label release, has much more bass, to the degree that I feel like it detracts from a lot of the other elements of the songs. The former, which was self-released, feels a lot lighter and open, but doesn't have quite the drive and heft. Regardless of which you prefer, I think it's interesting to be able to make the comparison.