From busking on the streets to paving those streets with Gold and Platinum certifications, the 30-year-old performer known as Passenger is certainly more well known now than he was even a year ago. Born in Brighton, England, he’s been captivating audiences around the globe with his international smash “Let Her Go”, along with other moderately sized singles like “Holes” and “The Wrong Direction”. All three topped my personal chart last year, with “Go” ranking as my overall #1 song of 2013. This coming Tuesday, the singer/songwriter delivers his followup to 2012’s All The Little Lights, titled Whispers, into stores, and while a stream of followup singles have yet to escape the shadow of his career defining ballad, it’s one of the best things I could have asked for this year. It’s simple yet heavy, familiar yet refreshing.
Now, I am obviously not a casual fan of Passenger; I’ve been following his progress for a little under a year and a half now, have seen him live and met him, bought his music on multiple formats, etc. I’m a little biased. However, there is something on here for everybody, whether you’re a fan of his bare bones ballads or would like to see a more upbeat side to him. In fact, there are some rather content moments on here in the middle of all the introspective material. It’s what he knows best and he stays true to who he is with a slightly more produced sound and wider instrumental backing. Put it all together and you have one of the purest records of 2014, one that will be ranking highly on my year-end list.
Beginning with the percussive-driven “Coins In A Fountain”, we are immediately immersed in that natural vibe as Mike Rosenberg sings about a shifting view of romance: “Love is the last unicorn, love is the only song I’ll sing all night… love is the truest of words.” However, that tranquility turns into a much more passive aggressive attitude during “27”, a folk rock cut about life in the business and his status in it. The song comes off as an homage to 70’s singles like Billy Joel‘s “The Entertainer” and The Raspberries‘s “Overnight Sensation (Hit Record)”. The singer claims, “I write songs that come from the heart/I don’t give a f**k if they’re gettin’ to the charts or not,” and “I’ve written 600 songs, only 12 get sung,” referring to compiling the tracklisting for an album. You could liken it to an “I Hate” moment; it’s out there.
Highlights toward the middle of the effort include “Bullets”, which essentially comes off as a twangier version of “Holes” and serves some major harmonica action. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this as a single down the line. When it comes to his tender, heart-wrenching songs, “Golden Leaves” is the loveliest of the bunch, an emotional string-filled story about a breakup and the inevitable longing that arises with it. He questions, “Do you remember how this started out?/So full of hope, but now we’re filled with doubt/I can’t live with you, but I’d die without.” (“Heart’s On Fire”, which arrives earlier in the lineup, is the more hopeful cousin to this track.) “Thunder”, following “Leaves”, is an upbeat and soaring number, bringing out the horn section as Rosenberg The Riddler offers up his words of wisdom: “I’m a choice you can’t choose… I’m yesterday’s paper, I’m yesterday’s news.” Luckily, the man and his compositions aren’t totally forgotten.
Towards the end of the set, we find the two best songs lyrically in the group. Track seven, “Rolling Stone”, no relation to the magazine, recounts Passenger‘s days as the wanderer he is when traveling the globe and pursuing his dream, yet also what he is leaving behind. In the first verse, he speaks: “Sometimes I feel I’m going nowhere/Sometimes I’m sure I never will/She said it’s ’cause I’m always moving/I never noticed ’cause I never stand still.” It’s a pretty poignant take on the matter and obviously, you can’t help but sympathize with the guy. He’s obviously not used to the stardom that he’s attained. “Riding To New York” is also worth it, a first hand account from the road of Rosenberg’s interaction with a man at a gas station while on tour in Minnesota. The subject, who is ill, relays to the singer that he’d like to “see my granddaughter one last time/Hold her close, and feel her tiny heartbeat next to mine/Want to see my son, and the man he’s become/Tell him I’m sorry for the things I’ve done.” It’s truly heartbreaking but so inspired.
There’s no doubt that Whispers won’t be as commercially successful as his last era; the lead U.S. single from the album, “Scare Away The Dark”, seems to be scaring more than satisfying radio programmers as it flirts with the top 30 on AAA radio and top 50 at Hot AC. These are obviously meager numbers compared to the massive “Let Her Go”. Yet, in terms of content overall, this is probably his best album. The variety is abundant and the songwriting is even more concrete than the last time around. For me, at least, it’s the quality release that makes the fan feel complete without giving into a more polished commercial standard. That’s how it could have gone; thankfully, it does not. At times it whispers and at times it roars, but it relates to us, and any kind of voice is better than no voice at all.