It’s still funny to me how artists can be so good, and writing and recording records for years before they actually get “discovered”. Michael David Rosenberg, aka Passenger, is one of these examples. Whispers is his fifth full-length album, and likely one of only two (and that might be a stretch) that most of his fan-base will know of. I’ll admit that I only ever knew about the original five-piece Passenger band back in 2007 with Wicked Man’s Rest, and then Rosenberg fell off my radar. But with the immense success of “Let Her Go” from All The Little Lights, coupled with opening for young superstar Ed Sheeran, Whispers is sure to garner a much wider audience than ever before for this songwriter.
Rosenberg’s delivery and writing reminds me of early James Blunt, with a bit more pessimistic tendencies. While Blunt took the more romanticized, love song route, much of Passenger’s music focuses on the struggles of life, which always includes love, but isn’t focused on it. “27” is a perfect example, as it’s a song about the fame he’s seen in the past year off the hit songs. “Written 600 songs / only 12 get sung / 87,000 cigarettes have passed through these lungs / and every single day I wish I’d never smoked one.” It’s a journey back to the way songs used to tell a solid story, no matter how long it might take. Passenger’s quick-witted lyricism is one we’ve come to expect, if you’re a fan and have listened to previous albums. Many current fans will liken it to Ed Sheeran, the sometimes-rapping pop song writer. But Whispers isn’t made for the mainstream radio. As “27” talks about, “I write songs that come from the heart / I don’t give a **** if they get into the chart or not”. It’s a refreshing attitude to have when you’re someone who’s seen crazy success and won’t bow to what the labels and industry is telling you.
Not one song on Whispers has that “this was made to be a hit” feeling to it. And after “Let Her Go”, it’s exactly what you’d probably expect. I think Rosenberg is happy with what success came from the song, but he’s just about making good music. “Heart’s On Fire” might be the closest thing to “Let Her Go” on this collection, but that’s not what it’s about. It’s about the emotion and love behind the song. “I don’t know where and I don’t know when / but I know we’ll be lovers again / oh darling, my heart’s on fire / you know those love songs will break your heart”. It’s interesting to look at the cover of Whispers and feel like it’s a small journal, or picture book for kids. The songs from Passenger really feel like a glimpse into his heart, and many of them like “Golden Leaves” leaves the listener longing for better times, in the most despair-ridden moments. Even the string arrangement feels strained, like the heart when it hurts. “What’s left to say when every word’s been spoken? What’s left to see when our eyes won’t open? What’s left to do when we’ve lost all hope and / What’s left to break when our hearts are broken? / But sometimes…” The powerful words permeate over the strings, drawing you into the depths of what Rosenberg feels.
A light-hearted track like “Thunder” appears after the depths of despair felt on “Golden Leaves”, and gives a good jolt back into the good in life. “Rolling Stone” is similar, and the horns on “Start A Fire” give it a light jazz feel, making for a more eclectic collection of songs than ever before from Rosenberg. The longest jaunt here for Passenger comes in the form of “Riding To New York”, and it’s filled with beautiful, vivid imagery that makes the listener long for home. The finale, “Scare Away The Dark”, served as an early single, but doesn’t end the album as well as “Riding To New York” would have. While it’s obviously a social commentary on the world’s reliance on computers, technology, and social media, it feels a tad forced from Rosenberg, similar to past albums where a few songs have felt like they didn’t belong. As a listener, I gravitate more towards the softer side of Passenger, rather than the in-your-face raw feel. Whispers is a worthy follow up to 2012’s album, and it’s still great to hear Rosenberg writing and performing songs the way he always has, and focusing on his lane, and what he does well.