Owl City’s Ocean Eyes is one of my favorite albums, and when I search the internet for opinions about it, the well-argued ones are usually blisteringly negative, and the positive ones are usually vapid and full of spelling errors. For whatever reason, people don’t seem to dig deep into Ocean Eyes and connect with it the way I do, and I think the internet needs an opinion on the album that’s positive and seriously considered. Here we go.
Ocean Eyes came out in 2009, and I’ve listened to it on and off in the seven years between then and now. Though it was commercially successful, most reviews around the time of its release were negative, saying that it was sickly sweet or that didn’t have the depth to keep listeners around. Reviewers said that the album floated along on the strength of meaningless pretty phrases and catchy but repetitive instrumental melodies. These criticisms and worse are true of Owl City’s other albums (but Maybe I’m Dreaming is decent). Ocean Eyes, though, is serious and emotional behind its pretty phrases and radio-pop instrumentals.
Criticism of the album was exacerbated by its most popular song, “Fireflies,” which gets old quickly, and its strangest song, “Dental Care,” which reviewers praised for its cleverness, but which is only skin-deep lyrically. The album’s beauty is in songs like “On the Wing” and “The Tip of The Iceberg” that discard whimsy for longing.
I love winter. I love snow and the way the wind bites only my cheeks because the rest of me is bundled up tight. I love the smell of frozen ground, and I love winter music like For Emma, Forever Ago and August and Everything After. But one of the best things about winter is watching the snow fall outside and imagining that you’re on your back on a beach somewhere, breathing the ocean air and forgetting about everything that keeps you from being happy. Ocean Eyes captures this longing better than any other album I’ve ever heard.
I’ve loved Ocean Eyes since I heard it in late 2009, but it’s hit me again in recent years because twice now I’ve left winter’s cutting cold to visit my family on Oahu, and even as the plane landed, stress and worry melted away exactly how I’d always dreamed they would. For a few weeks, anyway. The cool hardwood floor in the hallway, the orange streetlights dancing through blinds, and the smell of saltwater embraced me like no place ever has or will.
I spend too much time longing to go back to somewhere I know doesn’t really exist anymore, because I can’t convince myself that that first night of beautiful calm is gone forever. My recent album, written and recorded over this past year, was a requiem for that feeling of safety and peace, and I hope it will be suitable catharsis.
All this to say: Ocean Eyes longs for one night of island calm, a respite from the bitter winter of everyday life, and that’s why I love the album. That longing feels important.
In some way, snowed in and dreaming of the ocean can be better than actually being on a beach. If I ever go back to Hawaii, it almost definitely won’t live up to my expectations. It was just too good the first time. Idealizing a place gives you hope, and in the dead of winter, the fire lit by hope and longing is what really keeps you warm at night.