Review Summary: Everyone's filling me up with noise, I don't know what they're talking about
People are always asking me what makes Passenger special, and an answer never seems ready to come to mind. On the surface, there is nothing particularly outstanding about the technical abilities of the UK's Mike Rosenberg. His voice, while strong and delicate by turns, is fairly limited in range; his guitar skills are above average but a fair way from being excellent; and almost all of his songs seem to follow your basic singer-songwriter formula that has guided so many other easily-forgotten faces and names to their brief moments in the sun. Sure, back when Passenger were a five-piece band they certainly stepped outside the singer-songwriter boundaries every now and then with their economical use of keyboards (see: "Girl I Once Knew") but since Passenger became Rosenberg's one-man band, he can't be said to have broken any new ground as far as the genre is concerned. In saying that, in order to answer such a difficult question one has to look at how all the aforementioned aspects come into play: how his plaintive voice suddenly switches from quiet reservation to unabashed emotive declaration, how his gentle guitar melodies act as a backdrop for something bigger; ultimately, one has to recognise that every aspect of Passenger's music is effectively emotional support for the stories he spins. His stories, whether funny or sad, whether bitterly nostalgic or grudgingly hopeful, are always written with an unmatched power of lyricism and emotional delivery that places Passenger far above his peers.
Rosenberg himself said of Whispers
that "There are lots of big stories and big ideas," and this certainly comes across in the diverse range of tones and moods spread out across the record. In truth, one of Passenger's most positive career aspects has been his ability to create a variety of emotions in the listener, from the internet porn line that made us laugh in "Staring at the Stars", to his list of bitter yet hilarious quips in "I Hate", to the end of "Table For One" as it rips your heart out of your chest; and in this sense, Whispers
feels more than anything like a career retrospective as it revisits and showcases the entirety of Passenger's expansive emotional range in just eleven tracks. It's easy to just point at the one-two punch of "Golden Leaves" and "Thunder" to demonstrate this; how Rosenberg cleverly follows the bitter reminiscence and unrelentingly depressing soundscapes of the former with the fantastically upbeat, bongoes-and-horns, wordlessly vocal joy that is the latter: the songs act as polar opposites which testify to the range of Passenger's sound, such as it is. But really, we see him at his best when effortlessly combining the two moods into one, as can be seen magnificently accomplished in album standout "27":
"Twenty seven years, twenty seven years done, written six hundred songs only twelve get sung
Eighty seven thousand cigarettes have passed through these lungs and every single day I wish I'd never smoked one
A week brushing my teeth and a week getting my hair cut, eight years sleeping I'm still tired when I wake up
A whole year eating and I still lost weight, ***, five proper girlfriends and five messy break-ups
Twenty seven birthdays, twenty seven New Year's, thirty thousand quid just so I could have a few beers
Ever dying old hopes, ever growing new fears, don’t know where I'm going but I know how I got here."
His nothing-short-of-genius use of rhyme and seamless transition between moods is so damn glorious because it is so genuine
. All Rosenberg does is take the brilliant madness of everyday life and put it into words: whether beautifully poetic and loaded with imagery, see "Bullets", or just heartfelt and plainly put as in "Rolling Stone", Rosenberg's way with words is second to none. Still, this is hardly the only important aspect of the album, and more than ever he seems to be aware of the need to broaden his musical palette. Following from the gradually increasing inclusion of guest vocalists, horns and drums that started in 2010's Flight of the Crow
and continued in 2012's All the Little Lights
is more comprehensive and more sonically diverse than anything he has released in the past. Along with the aforementioned joyous sonic explosion of "Thunder", Rosenberg employs horns to fantastic effect throughout the album, creating an ominous mood for the surprisingly desolate-sounding "Start a Fire" just as they brighten the mood considerably for the beginning of the magnificent "Scare Away the Dark" (more on that later). At the same time, he is aware when what a song needs is space to breathe, and strips back to largely his own voice and guitar as with Wide Eyes Blind Love
-era Passenger on lead single "Heart's on Fire" and the first half of the title track. The latter of these contains an ending which, without exaggeration, could possibly be Passenger's greatest achievement to date musically. The song builds from its humble, sparse beginnings to an increasingly layered, heart-wrenchingly cathartic climax of horns, drums and impassioned vocals before quickly settling back down to bear witness to a breath-takingly poignant final line: "You see, all I need's a whisper in a world that only shouts". And if this stupendous moment is Rosenberg's highest point musically, then it truly stands testament to his amazing talent that he can write some of his greatest and most potent lines alongside it. Which brings me to the final song, "Scare Away the Dark".
Already pushing its way towards being at the very pinnacle of his discography, Whispers'
closing track is a masterpiece in every aspect, but most especially for being his grandest statement lyrically, and the brilliant culmination of every story he has told from the beginning of his career. Careening earnestly from bitter social commentary to heartfelt prose, Rosenberg proves beyond doubt that he is one of the finest songwriters of a generation.
"Well, we wish we were happier, thinner and fitter,
We wish we weren't losers and liars and quitters
We want something more, not just nasty and bitter
We want something real, not just hashtags and Twitter
It's the meaning of life, and it's streamed live on YouTube
But I bet Gangnam Style will still get more views
We're scared of drowning, flying and shooters
But we're all slowly dying in front of ***ing computers."
In closing, it is the social commentary at the heart of "Scare Away the Dark" that truly seems to drive Whispers
and provide Rosenberg with the fuel to sing his songs. It is therefore fitting that, at the album's emotional high-point in the explosive climax of the title track, Rosenberg sings "Everyone's filling me up with noise, I don't know what they're talking about". With the over-blown success of "Let Her Go" in 2012, Rosenberg seems aware more than ever that the world we live in is a chaotic one, filled with noise and confusion and miscommunication. And yet, it is truly remarkable that in the midst of all this there are artists who can still inspire a simple, powerful emotion in those who listen to them: and like the best of these, Rosenberg has proved time and time again that he can do it using nothing but his words and an acoustic guitar.
So sing, and sing at the top of your voice.