I admit that I have a soft spot for Passenger. I mean who doesn’t love a guy who comes through the morass that is the music industry the hard way, catches a break and shoots to ‘superstardom’ overnight. Mike Rosenberg has earned his success. He has been playing gigs, busking and writing his own music since he was 16. In 2012, championed by longtime friend Ed Sheeran, his album “All the Little Lights” catapulted him from nowhere to megastar billing almost overnight. The single “Let her go” tapped the charts in 20 countries and the youtube video of the song has 380 Million hits.
Why then was I so reluctant to buy ‘Whispers’? Well I feared that ‘Whispers’ would be ‘that difficult second album’. Yes I know that “All the Little Lights” was in fact his 5th Album, after all I have explored his entire back catalogue. I was worried that Rosenberg’s creativity might have been destroyed by the demands of the music industry for a follow up that would repeat the success of the album that moved him form relative obscurity to hot property.
As it turns out I need not have worried. Reassurance arrives as early as the first verse of the second song as Passenger sings “the only thing I get told, I gotta sell out if I want to get sold, 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”.
You see, for me at least, Passengers appeal is the simple honesty of his songs. He writes about life, about love, about his experiences. His guitar playing is simple, a fairly basic folk finger style with a consistent repeated picking pattern. His music is produced and mixed without gimmicks. It is clear from the outset that Rosenberg intended to stick to his roots and I am very grateful that he did.
Whispers is therefore a collection of beautifully written heartfelt songs. It is the sort of album that will find its way onto your iPod or CD player when you want to relax. It is easy and pleasant to listen to lovely melodies and where the sound is augmented by strings or saxophone it is done gently, a delicate augmentation of sound which adds texture without overwhelming the core of the melody. The thing with Rosenberg though is that his songs have a way of slowly but insistently working their way into your consciousness. It is often a slow process but as your understanding of the songs deepen you find yourself singing along, humming the melodies in the shower, finding the chorus running through your mind at unexpected times. This is especially true with the title track, Rolling Stone and 27. Rosenberg’s real talent however is that he connects with you on an emotional level. You fear for him at times, for example when he sings that “I fear I’ve grown a rolling stone inside of me” and concludes with the line “we both know too well the rolling stones turn into sand if they don’t find a place to stand”. You worry about him when he sings “my heart’s a frozen lake where streams used to flow” in ‘Start a fire’ and in ‘Thunder’ you sense his vulnerability when he says “I’m a fish out of water, a lamb to the slaughter”. You wonder if it is all becoming too much for him, it is emotional stuff and in all honesty at times his seeming vulnerability would bring a tear to a glass eye.
It may be true to say that, for some at least, the tracks on ‘Whispers’ are less instant than some of the tracks on ‘All the little lights’. This album is a grower, it gets better with every listen, it paints pictures and rewards the listener with wonderful lines like “Love is the last unicorn” in ‘Coins in a Fountain”. Every track on whispers has merit, each brings its own reward and Rosenberg’s skill as a songwriter is revealed. It would be churlish to try to identify standout tracks because every track has something to recommend it. After a few listens I have come to love “Riding to New York” and I especially love the acoustic version on the ‘Deluxe’ release of the album. This tale of a man riding across the USA to hold his grandchildren and to say sorry to his children for his failures in life is really heart wrenching and poignant , especially when you realise that the subject of the song is dying from smoking related lung cancer. It is a superb piece of writing and the acoustic versions stripped bare feel adds to the atmosphere of the song. If the song doesn’t bring a lump to your throat you must have a heart of stone.
In my view “Whispers” is a real triumph a lovely collection of songs, a collection that, given time, touch me in a way that only Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, Neil young and Bruce Springsteen have in the past. That, my friend, is high raise indeed.