The name Passenger is currently echoing around the world as a global audience has woken up to the disarming honesty and passion of Mike Rosenberg’s songs. After years of patiently working away at his craft, the last two years have finally seen him catapulted to mega-star billing. First there was the none stop touring, much of it with long standing friend and champion, Ed Sheeran, which took up most of 2012. Then there was the astonishing success of his song Let Her Go, which first gained support in Europe, but went on to top the charts in 20 or more countries, making number 2 in the UK and 5 in America, selling well over 4 million copies worldwide. The official video on YouTube has notched up a staggering 278 million plus plays.
All of the above passed me by. Would it make a difference if it hadn’t? I’d like to say not, but as I live in an alternate musical universe where gigs are mostly intimate affairs, the single has died out and success is more frequently measure in hundreds and thousands. I know my own perverse streak is growing daily wider.
Well, they do say ignorance is bliss and it’s a phrase that seems peculiarly pertinent. So, when the new album from Passenger, Whispers, popped through my letterbox, there was no great weight of expectation. I treated it like any other new album, as it joined the play pile, shuffled its turn to the top and eventually into the CD player and onto the iPod. On first spin I was a little nonplussed, as is often the case when hearing something for the first time, but as the CD unfolded, a couple of songs stood out. I got the first hint of vivid stories and manifold ideas tumbling out of a complex cascade of lyrics, with an emotional traction that would require much closer attention.
A couple of longer than usual train journeys afforded the opportunity for exactly that and it struck me as somehow appropriate that as the scenery rolled by, Passenger was to be the soundtrack, but with each play, a growing sense of admiration started to turn into something a whole lot deeper as one by one the songs hit their mark and the Whispers therein found their way to my heart.
They also say it’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for and you could describe Whispers as quietly confident. It’s not a smash and attention grab job, and in the complex wordplay alone there is much to digest slowly rather than in a greedy rush. Musically Mike Rosenberg, who is Passenger, favours a finger style acoustic and the additional instrumental colour is subtle and finely judged. There’s nothing shouty going on even if some of the choruses quickly attain a familiarity that will see them sung back by the sizeable crowds that Passengers next tour will unquestionably attract. What there is, however, is a feeling that theses songs have real meaning for Mike, displaying an honesty and intensity, heartfelt and endearing, that gives these Whispers a bite of something properly profound.
Then they say, stick to your guns. Whispers has been recorded fairly simply, much like its predecessors, in the same studio and with many of the same team as the last album All The Little Lights, including co-producer, Chris Vallejo. At the heart of the album is still Mike Rosenberg the busker, a man who has travelled light and travelled a lot, splitting his time between the UK and Australia following the sun and playing on any street corner from which he wasn’t quickly moved on. None of this is remarkable of itself, except for what has happened over the last year. Seemingly, Mike’s desire to down the school books and pick up the guitar had horrified his parents, but even they were swayed by his dedication. He’s worked hard for this.
Perhaps it helps that work started on Whispers before all of the hoo-hah of Let Her Go, but equally possible is that it made no difference at all. I’ve read some things in the fallout that suggest that Mike has kept his feet firmly planted on planet earth.
His voice is unusual and much higher pitched than you would expect, although without straying into anything outlandish from his hirsute, troubadour styling. As a fan of some of the most distinctive voices rock, pop and folk have ever produced, it still took me a couple of plays to tune in. Still, acquiring the taste is something that you simply must do, as the rewards quickly outweigh the work involved and once you do, everything else just drops into place, such is the extraordinary quality of the songs.
The first of those song to hit home for me was Bullets, which works on all kinds of levels, the narrative flow in particular, with a story that sucks you in. It sounds so deeply personal, as if the main character is someone well known to Mike. There’s a conviction in the telling of a tale of a collector undone by a break in. Once that threshold has been crossed and a lifetime’s work is compromised, the trauma and fear left in the wake are all too palpable. It’s ultimately and devastatingly defined by the songs dénouement, although I won’t spoil it for you.
The second t make its mark was Rolling Stone and about half way through there’s an interjection from saxophones that is very redolent of early 70’s Van the man. But it’s the song itself, a bittersweet tussle of love and affection, with the doubt of, “But I fear I’ve grown a rolling stone inside of me.” I bristle with emotion just at the thought of a song that captures love’s intransigence and insecurity in less than three and a half minutes with such authority and the line, “For we both know too well the rolling stones turn into sand if they don’t find a place to stand.”
The more you listen the more each song stakes its claim. There’s 27, a catalogue of a life in essence, detailing some of the minutiae and statistics of cigarettes smoked, hours slept, brushing of teeth and so forth. It’s clever but amidst the sharpness is, “Don’t want the devil to be taking my soul, I write songs that come from the heart I don’t give a f**k if they get in to the chart or not, only way I can be is to say what I see and have no shadow hanging over me.” Aaah, they do say, “plus ça change, c’est la même chose,” but it also seems that there’s something of a dogged spirit intact.
As if to emphasise how far Passenger has travelled in s short a time, hey, Thunder offers up more nagging doubts about his future with, “I’m a fish out of water, a lamb to the slaughter, a moth to the flame.,” As if that weren’t enough he sings, “Well I wait in line, so I can wait some more, ’til I can’t remember what I came here for,” before concluding, “But I can’t leave now.”
In their own way, every one of the 11 songs on Whispers is exceptional and could warrant special mention and attention. Most tellingly of all, however, is that Let Her Go, from the preceding record, with its gazillion hits and more on YouTube, still brought a tear to my eye. The same can be said of everyone of the racks on this new CD. It just seems that so much is at stake.
So many people seem to know this already, that my contrary streak has gone into meltdown. A quote from the Iggster sees the only way to get to the nub of this, “He looks through his window, what does he see? He sees the sign and hollow sky, he sees the stars come out tonight, he sees the city’s ripped backsides, he sees the winding ocean drive and everything was made for you and me, all of it was made for you and me.” All of Whispers was made exactly for that, “So let’s ride and ride and ride and ride.”
Review by: Simon Holland
Whispers is released 9 June 2014 via Island Records
Pre-order Whispers (Limited Edition 2CD Book) via: Amazon
Head to http://passengermusic.com/ for details of Passenger’s extensive European and UK Tour.