Passenger – Whispers (Review)

Passenger - whispers

27 years, 27 years, only thing I know, the only thing I get told
I’ve gotta sell out if I wanna get sold, I don’t want the devil to be taking my soul.
I write songs that come from the heart, I don’t give a fuck if they get into the chart or not.
Only way I can be is to say what I see and have my shadow hanging over me.

The above lines are taken from 27, the second track on Passenger’s fifth record, and I picked them out to start this review because I found them incredibly reassuring above all else. When fourth record All The Little Lights was released back in 2012 it seemed destined to go the same way as those that preceded it, slipping under the radar for the most part and never really garnering the attention or sales it really deserved. A year later that attention came in abundance from single Let It Go, which oddly enough was my least favourite track on the record. All of a sudden Rosenberg‘s music was absolutely everywhere and to say he’d blown up would be an understatement. Even today, just before sitting down to write this I went downstairs to pick up a drink and it was playing on the radio, and to be honest I sort of expected it would be. Perhaps it’s unfair of me to suspect that this success might negatively affect his music and commercialise it, but by the time 27 rolls around any doubts are erased and seem foolish, because Passenger is still very much Passenger, and Whispers is one of 2014’s best releases to date, sounding incredibly genuine and grounded despite coming from a chart topper.

Michael Rosenberg’s fourth solo effort under the moniker Passenger sounds more like a continuation of All The Little Lights than something born from its success. Depending on when the majority of these songs were written any comment about Rosenberg’s life-changing year could prove moot, but it doesn’t really matter anyway. Whispers was recorded in the same studio as his last few records with a similar assortment of contributing members, and the charm that made those records glow still exists in spades, blooming on the vibrant Thunder and haunting on the sombre Golden Leaves. I look back on two of the genres best records from last year, Foy Vance’s Joy Of Nothing and Frank Turner’s Tape Deck Heart, and Whispers sort of falls between the two. It lacks the power of Vance’s work and the emotion of Turner’s but it has heart in a similar sort of abundance, and that’s what really defines it. Rosenberg means every word he sings and sings them like nothing else matters more to him – he pours himself into his songs and it definitely shows.

Whispers opens with Coins In A Fountain, and it’s pleasingly familiar, with quick-fire vocal verses sunk in Rosenberg’s unique accent – one which really benefits his music – and a memorable chorus preaching love and nothing but love. It’s a nice idea and it’s a solid opener, although it could do without the line ‘love is the last unicorn’, which is hard to take seriously. From here things only improve, first with the enigmatic 27, then with the delicate Heart’s On Fire and following that the storytelling Bullets, which offers up one of the records best narratives. Lyrically Whispers makes good use of some clever wordplay, but Rosenberg’s penchant for songwriting really shines when he tells a story through his music. Bullets deals with, well, bullets, and addresses the sentimentality of material possessions, a connection to something that others might consider nothing, with a musical accompaniment of harmonicas and crooning backing vocals which lend themselves well. The song takes a fairly straightforward commentary and makes it much more, and this is often the case on Whispers. On lead single Heart’s On Fire Rosenberg and his band take quite a minimalistic song and turn it into something magic, a trait of all the great singer-songwriters. It’s similar to Foy Vance’s Feel For Me and it’s just as good, touching and well executed, subtle yet sweet. There’s a fair share of these softer songs on Whispers but there’s also several more upbeat numbers, and with summer only just beginning these tracks seem destined to complement a breezy sunny day. The aforementioned 27 is cheery, faster as instrumentation bounces, backing off slightly to a fitting violin section and returning with one of the records best verses as Rosenberg lists stat after stat, putting his own journey into perspective, capturing a lifetime in around 27 seconds and coming out of the other end looking forward, running forward even. Thunder is another charismatic entry which is the shortest song by some distance at two minutes long, buoyant and catchy, and when Rosenberg sings ‘Hey I’ll go running circles… down to the sea’ the songs contagious nature encourages a listener to do the same without a care in the world. These spattering’s of sunshine are often contrasted by cloudier tracks which allow Rosenberg to explore a more poignant side of his music, most noticeably on tenth track Riding To New York, which was easily my favourite song from the album. The track tells the story of an elderly man Rosenberg meets on his travels, a man on his way out of life but wanting to see those who made it all worthwhile one last time. It’s an incredibly moving piece of music – a bittersweet goosebump-stirring road trip which, given the context, is quite sad but also quite uplifting, bolstered by some gorgeous blooming strings and Rosenberg’s own brilliant delivery as he takes a story which isn’t really his own and expresses it brilliantly. The following title track is another highlight, beginning slow and adding layers as it progresses, with Rosenberg again seeming dissatisfied with being part of the herd (I wait in line so I can wait some more / Til’ I can’t remember what I came here for’), and as the song unravels he allows himself some room to breathe, shedding his inhibitions and letting go during a triumphant peak as he yells ‘everyone’s filling the Earth with noise / I don’t know what they’re talking about / See all I need’s a whisper in a world that only shouts. He certainly makes himself heard here, and his words really resonate with a listener, starting a ripple which turns into a wave. Given the opportunity Whispers can do the same, and it’s title is fitting all thing’s considered. It’s not a particularly loud or brash record, even by the genres standards, but it has something to say. All you have to do is listen.

However, songs like Whispers do sound a little odd in light of his recent album sales; Rosenberg sings about wanting to find his path, but by now you get the sense that isn’t as big an issue. On Rolling Stone he sings ‘Sometimes I feel I’m going nowhere, sometimes I’m sure I never will’, which sounds strange in retrospect, but one of the records main strengths is that despite a jump in popularity it’s crystal clear that Rosenberg has stayed true to himself, remaining the same lovable, endearing character he’s been since Wicked Man’s Rest. His songs are still highly relatable and enjoyable, told through honest and modest eyes which have seen enough to truly understand sadness but also know enough to remain optimistic in the face of it. Whispers ends on this positive note, and also with perhaps the only song that sounds slightly cheap and clichéd. If opener Coins in the Fountain preaches love from the stage then final track Scare Away The Dark yells it from the rooftops for all to hear. It borders marginally on overbearing, but it’s a nice sentiment that carries a message as Rosenberg rallies and rouses, flying the flag high for what he believes in – the freedom to be who you are. The second verse carries shades of I Hate as Rosenberg verbally attacks things he doesn’t approve of. In this instance it’s social media / the internet and the way it limits the imagination, singing ‘We want something more not just nasty and bitter / We want something real not just hashtags on Twitter / It’s the meaning of life and it’s streamed live on YouTube but I bet Gangnam Style will still get more views / And we’re scared of drowning, flying and shooters but we’re all slowly dying in front of fucking computers.’ Rosenberg swears very rarely on Whispers outside of 27 but when he does he makes it count (like AMC limiting Breaking Bad to one ‘fuck’ per season and then delivering the ‘I fucked Ted’ line), using it to express his own disdain. He’s absolutely right of course, and his words carry weight as a result. You should stop reading this right now and go for a bike ride or a walk, hopefully it won’t end the same way as Riding To New York does. Soak in some scenery and do it listening to Whispers, because chances are it’ll make you incredibly happy, happier than Call Of Duty or Netflix will (probably, don’t hold me to that). Scare Away The Dark begs for you to do something different, to go out and live, and it’s a brilliant note to end the record on despite a cheesy final few minutes which wouldn’t go amiss on the soundtrack to a Disney film. The back and forth Rosenberg shares here is catered more to a live setting (again like on I Hate), and you can envision his gigs ending on this almost life affirming note where the clichés aren’t clichés but genuine messages which aren’t diluted by a studio environment.

It’s worth mentioning that the deluxe edition of Whispers includes acoustic renditions of a generous seven standard album tracks, all of which are worthy alternatives to the originals. Rosenberg’s music has always been acoustic-centric, but these tracks still bring something new, making the already stripped back tracks like Heart’s On Fire even calmer, smoldering softly. As on the standard version Riding To New York is still pretty damn special, whilst Coins In A Fountain really profits from the acoustic treatment, less dynamic than its counterpart but still effecting. The final few lines of Whispers are great acoustically, as stunning as they are on the full band version, and I actually prefered the acoustic take on Golden LeavesAll The Little Lights underwent a similar treatment a few years back, and Whispers benefits likewise because Rosenberg has a voice meant for songs like these, and I’d definitely recommend going deluxe if you happen to be torn.

I didn’t plan for this review to be the longest I’ve ever written but I’m glad it is, even it has made for rough reading at times. I’ve a huge amount of respect for Passenger, a musician thoroughly deserving of the fame he’s received over the last year, a level of fame which will only grow with Whispers – a record which is everything I wanted it to be. It’s beautifully written and beautifully sung, bolstered by a truly great backing from an assortment of horns and strings, floating along and occasionally soaring at its more dynamic. Whispers is a record well worth soaking in and one that rewards doing so; it’s soothing yet at times slightly harrowing in its honesty, brimming with a lust for life whilst yearning for a better one. Passenger’s fifth record, and fourth after their disbandment, is Rosenberg’s best, a special collection of mostly special songs – Golden Leaves and Start A Fire are slightly forgettable. Rosenberg plays for a bigger audience now, and it’s likely they’ll love Whispers, because it’s very difficult not to.

Rating – 9/10

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