Passenger takes his acoustic sound to a new scale in “Whispers”
It’s rare to find honest music that questions, despairs, and unravels the heart, but Passenger is something you want to come home to. There’s something comforting in his simple arrangements, mellow guitar plucking, and raspy voice.
Mike Rosenberg started off busking in England and Australia to fund his first four solo albums. His humble beginnings made his music refreshingly soulful, personal, and endearing. Due to the popularity of his single “Let It Go,” he quickly became one of the most talked about indie musicians. His new album Whispers caters to listeners that are dipping their toes in indie waters, featuring cinematic pop tracks amongst a few understated folk gems. Some tracks are grandiose and confidently tackle complex issues to appeal to a wide audience, straying from the subtlety and humility that won over millions. However, others are unflinchingly honest, taking storytelling to new heights and imbuing ideas with meaning, wonder, and purpose.
The album starts on a warm note with Coins in a Fountain, a feel-good love anthem with catchy percussive rhythms and a unique combination of instruments, featuring violins alongside xylophones and bongo drums. 27 takes an introspective turn, illustrating Rosenberg’s frustration at not finding success for most of his music career in an orchestrated track whose upbeat melodies take away from the difficulty that he’s describing. However, Hearts on Fire, a love song about being with the right person at the wrong time, hits home with its simple arrangement and soothing guitar fingerpicking in Passenger’s iconic style. It is easily one of my favorite tracks on the record and is heartbreakingly, devastatingly beautiful.
Bullets adds some country flavor to the mix, telling the story of a man whose bullet collection, which was very important to him, was stolen for no reason. Unfortunately, its shrill harmonica melodies and repetitive, predictable chord progression trivialize the story being told. However, Golden Leaves is extremely moving, reminiscing on the love of an old couple that has lost their hope as their relationship has run its course. It will make your heart sink in the best ways, featuring wistful and earnest orchestral melodies that build on and compliment Rosenberg’s vocals. The shifting violin melodies against the repetitive acoustic guitar heighten every moment. The stripped-down arrangement and stunning mix of minor and major melodies make the song deeply heartfelt.
Thunder provides comic relief from this emotional rollercoaster in a light-hearted, nonsensical pop song with repetitive percussion that propels it forward. Rolling Stone has more depth, describing the downsides of leaving everything behind to chase your dreams. It discusses the traveler’s experience of being lonely on the road, missing their loved ones, and struggling to maintain relationships.
Start a Fire sounds like it came straight from an old west movie soundtrack. Its country feel and muffled horns set a scene as it tells the story of a life. Whispers, my personal favorite, is a powerful and relatable shout into the void that contains some of the most striking and thought-provoking lyrics on the album. It describes feeling trapped and confused trying to understand an unstable world, and uses crescendos well to amplify its effect.
Riding to New York is a touching tribute to a man Rosenberg met at a gas station, who was dying of lung cancer and driving across the US to spend the rest of his days with his family. It has a unique arrangement, with gentle guitar fingerpicking, haunting violin rhythms, and an 808 drumbeat against Rosenberg’s raspy vocals.
The album ends on a weak note with Scare Away the Dark, a rant about being disconnected with the world and suppressed by the monotony of everyday life whose clichés and popular culture references like “we want something real, not just hashtags and Twitter” and “I bet Gangnam style will still get more views” belittle the social commentary it offers. Although its message about materialism is heartfelt, it is produced for popular success, which takes away from its impact.
Despite a few forgettable tracks, Whispers features some of Passenger’s most meaningful lyrics, talented guitar work, and vivid storytelling, staying true to his acoustic sound while adding in new production. Although this album is more ambitious and uplifting than All The Little Lights, Passenger holds onto his contemplative, melancholy moments and soulful approach to music. He draws from his stories and those of others, creating an all-encompassing portrayal of being alive in a weird and wonderful world. His music and lyrics contain layers that let you find new meaning in each listen.
Nayantara Dutta is a rising sophomore at Tufts University who plans to major in Psychology and minor in Music. She loves avocados, flea markets, and indie folk music. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Paperfinger Magazine, Atwood Magazine, and Chicken Soup for the Soul.