In January 2011, I discovered a song called “This Is The New Year” by a newcomer named Ian Axel. The song was released on a small label and ended up being promoted to AAA (Adult Album Alternative) radio around that time. I playlisted the song for a few weeks, but when it was clear that it wouldn’t take off at radio, I ultimately dropped it from rotation. It wasn’t that the song was bad, but I just needed to move onto other releases.
So, imagine my surprise when two years later, that single returned under a different act, A Great Big World. This time around, Axel teamed with friend Chad Vaccarino, and after its use on Glee and the duo’s signing to Epic Records, the song finally managed to secure some play. However, it’s a second release and big ballad “Say Something” that’s captivated a wider audience thanks to a duet version with Christina Aguilera. The simplicity of both its heartfelt lyrics and melody seems to be relatable to just about anyone in a darker situation.
Now comes the twosome’s debut album, Is There Anybody Out There?, a fantastic collection of thirteen songs that runs through themes of breaking hearts, breaking stereotypes and, at the core of it, breaking through. It’s one of the first great albums of 2014 and one that I think will surprise many who didn’t intend to go beyond the singles. It’s absolutely worth it.
Opener “Rockstar” begins on a positive note with the fantasy of dreaming big; in this case, it’s the sentiment of “I just wanna be a rockstar.” The piano-driven melody explodes into a fuller arrangement of drum and guitar, reminiscent of something like “Slice” by Five For Fighting. They may be “hanging on the memory of what we would become”, and luckily, the dream has blossomed and survived thus far. (P.S. nice album title shout-out early on!)
It’s then onto “Land Of Opportunity”, which comes off as the happy breakup song of the bunch. (For the duo, it was a falling out with a friend.) From the fun and whimsical set of lyrics, like “I’m changing my name to a word that’s really hard to say,” to a Middle 8 straight out of the fairground, this is pure pop magic. Just stick around after that chaotic percussion madness; it ends on a note of beauty, and that’s one “opportunity” it can’t afford to give up.
Third track “Already Home” verges into Plain White T’s “Hey There Delilah” territory, a simple ballad that sort of acts as the calm before the storm moment preceding “Say Something”. They sing, “If only New York wasn’t so far away/I promise this city won’t get in our way.” Following that is the upbeat “I Really Want It”, which echoes the “homeward bound” sentiment established in “Already”. This song, however, showcases the two men’s determination to make it in the industry, albeit on their own terms and not by societal pressures. It’s not among my favorites, but it’s still cute.
After the aforementioned “Something” is a set of three songs that tap into religious tones. “You’ll Be Okay” flourishes like a modern-day spiritual, with an inspiring message of “You’ll be okay/The sun will rise to better days.” Track seven, “Everyone Is Gay”, is a lovable, energetic piece that also shines as a theatrical number (not unlike some other tracks on here), like it was meant to be in Avenue Q. They’re “one step closer to breaking down the walls” of those close-minded individuals that won’t accept love as love and people for who they are. Finally, “There Is An Answer” again furthers the notion that “love exists in every kind” and “that will love find us here.” It’s accessible and elegant.
The ending four tracks represent a hodgepodge of different musical styles, from the guitar-driven “I Don’t Wanna Love Somebody Else”, an ode to living for the troubles in a relationship even when it’s beyond repair, to the celebratory “This Is The New Year”, an anthem for those starting over in life or those who need to be picked up. Possibly the one track that sticks out the most is “Shorty Don’t Wait”, 11th in the lineup, the most folk-driven song of them all. It’s perfect for bars, festivals… pretty much anywhere where you’re just chilling with friends and having a good time. It’ll be much bigger and better live when everybody’s chanting along. If you’re upset that this listening party is coming to a close, then “Cheer Up!” Track 12 is a curiously atmospheric, but barren sounding track (cue the Owl City songbook) that attempts to put everything in perspective: “It’s a great big world and there’s no need to cry/13 billion years and there’s still time.” Well said. (The Aguilera-assisted “Something” ends the set as a closer on track 13.)
Rooted in emotional experiences and well-crafted arranging, A Great Big World has a solid repertoire with the material they’ve produced on this album and a decent amount of variety. It’s a quick listen but a balanced one, mixing both traditional and futuristic pop tracks, as well as the serious and fun moments (though that fun does occasionally come off as a little juvenile, not that that’s unfavorable with me.) It’s certainly radio-ready; Epic would be wise to try one of the peppier numbers, like “Rockstar”, as the third single from the effort. It has the feel of a Hot AC hit. Pop enthusiasts, theater kids, and The Voice fans, unite: to answer that pivotal question, we’re all out here rooting for the boys… are you?