I'd challenge the sourest cynic to sit through the album's 12 songs without breaking into a smile.
The cover of The Best Party Ever shows these things, drawn with simple cartoon-lines and bold colours: a rabbit with one ear, a ghost, a devil, a monster, a boy with a balloon, a white furball, a bear with a crown and a guitar, a white bird, a dog on top of a speaker, a martian, five frogs, a flower, a panda, and a few other shapes it is impossible to give an accurate description of. It is the kind of art we used to draw before we learned about perspective and a certain anatomy, and it is a perfect evocation of the kindergarten innocence that Jof Owen and Pete Hobbs take as the foundation for an exploration of confusion, mortality, and other universal concerns of existential youth.
In a sense, the drawings and the elaborately sweet music are an attempt at divining wisdom through that childlike innocence. You'll notice the duo's songs are compact, and move from subjects of great emotional weight to incidental observations with an agile step. The combination of breezy melodies, smooth production, classic songwriting, and a fragile, tenor vocal will immediately recall Belle & Sebastian, whose influence is certainly felt pervasively throughout the album. There's the sunny California soul of the Beach Boys going on, too, though perhaps tinged with a particularly English sense of restraint. And a few of the tracks echo the Shins, which together just means -- The Boy Least Likely To owe a great deal to the Beatles. But this familiar sound is packaged in such a unique and appealing way that I'd challenge the sourest cynic to sit through the album's 12 songs without breaking into a smile.
The Best Party Ever opens with the sounds of tinny glockenspiel, a sunny major scale -- up and down. A banjo or toy guitar enters, mirroring the melody with a carefully-constructed, precious air. Owen's wistful tenor is at first all innocence: looking at the night sky, the persona of the song wishes he'd "sparkle for a moment". But as the texture is filled in, building to the chorus, the lyrics take a more alarming twist, revealing deep insecurities with the same childlike straightforwardness as the first verse: "I'm happy because I'm stupid... If I wasn't so happy I wouldn't be so scared of dying". The honesty with which intensely personal revelations and whimsical, childlike observations are intertwined is at the heart of the song's (and the album's) appeal: catching the listener off-guard, these small-scale creations craft real, adult feeling out of simple elements.
And it's true: TBLLT's music and its lyrics make at times startling bedfellows. Whereas the tinkling, intricate music is the definition of joy, Owen's words are full of casually-observed melancholy poetry ("I look tough enough / But if you hold me up to the light you can see my broken heart"), or casually-observed existential tragedy ("I used to read before I went to sleep / But now I just pass out watching TV"). With repeat listens, the words come to hold more significance than the breezy melodies -- and that's not taking away from the skill of the songwriting, but an additional compliment to these insightful/wry/witty/evocative bundles of observation and feeling.
"Monsters", a cool synth-jam in which Owen imagines all the residents of his town as monsters, has all the everyday activities becoming a grotesque ritual (has such a simple act as picking corn out of your teeth ever seemed so frightening?); but to him by far the most terrifying thing -- that they all tell him he'd be happier if he was more like them. "Paper Cuts" has a wavy synth squiggle and an airy, precarious chorus in which a broken heart is wryly compared to an inconsequential paper cut. "Sleeping With a Gun Under My Pillow" embellishes a twangy country guitar with bird-chirps and a drawn-out, chorus that sounds like "The Longest Time". And my favourite track on the whole album, "Hugging My Grudge", is sure to become an On-The-Go playlist standard: "I have weapons / And battle plans / But in my heart I know / I can't ever protect you / From things that I don't understand".
Like a child, Owen is amazed and wondrous and scared of everything: spiders, insects, flying. If you're feeling unkind, you might say 'Get over it'; but if you’d say that, this music's not going to appeal to you. In that case, you can tell your friends that "I See Spiders When I Close My Eyes" is what Monty Python makes fun of when they sing "I'm So Worried".
My only real criticism of the disc is this: Owens is constantly a hair flat (tuning-wise). Though there are obvious claims of purpose behind this -- a communication of imperfection -- it bugs me a little; it's like the one thing that, the more you listen, interrupts total transcendence.
The first time you listen to The Best Party Ever, you'll likely be left with a transient, breezy happiness; listen closer, and a complex array of emotions presents itself. Musically, The Best Party Ever is a perfect springtime record; it ebbs and swells, but seems in a constant state of celebration of new life. Unified by this musical optimism and a child's wonder and innocence, The Best Party Ever could become, as it has for many already, a treasured companion for your life’s dips and dizzying highs.