Whispers

Passenger

Black Crow Records, 2014

http://passengermusic.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/21/2020

One of many things proved by the existence of Bob Dylan is that exceptional songs trump all other considerations. Tom Waits knows it. So does John Hiatt. Vocal quality is strictly secondary if you can write a song that grabs the listener by the front of their shirt and demands their attention.

Michael David Rosenberg, a.k.a. Passenger, sings with the pinched, husky, world-weary voice of a homeless chain-smoker, and not only does it not detract from these songs, he manages to turn this seeming limitation into an asset by writing songs that fit his voice like a glove, downbeat yet melodic tunes full of stark loneliness and poetic longing. Raised in Brighton, England as the son of a British mother and a Jewish-American father, Rosenberg’s musical sensibilities meld the acoustic-troubadour approach of early Dylan or James Taylor with the more orchestral, distinctly British folk-rock leanings of artists like Van Morrison, Mumford & Sons and Glen Hansard. (In fact, the first time I heard a Passenger song, I thought it might be an outtake from the soundtrack to Once.)

Passenger’s 2014 outing Whispers is notable for its incorporation of strings as an added element on top of Rosenberg’s typically spare arrangements. But what matters in the end, as always, is the songs.

“Coins In A Fountain” immediately establishes the vibe of the record, with an eminently buskable acoustic guitar melody supplemented by prominent vibes, bass, drums, and finally strings. And how’s this for an opening verse? “Fear is dark but my love is a lantern, shining up like coins in a fountain / hope is a tree sitting on a mountain where the grass don’t grow.” Yes please, I’d like some more of that. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

And then Rosenberg brings out the big guns. “27” is simply brilliant, a bright, jangly, brutally honest summation of his present moment, the crazy road life he’s living while making music. “I don’t know where I’m running but I know how to run, ’cos running’s the thing I’ve always done / I don’t know what I’m doing but I know what I’ve done, I’m a hungry heart I’m a loaded gun” goes the chorus, before the whole band drops out to let the strings carry the bridge under an even more pointed monologue. As the band comes back in, now with a background chorus, the whole song lifts off. It’s magnificent.

From there we move through passionate love songs (“Hearts On Fire”), artful allegories (“Bullets”), somber reflections (“Golden Leaves”), and jaunty celebrations of freedom (“Thunder”), all deftly arranged to maximize the tools at Rosenberg’s disposal. In each case, the addition of strings accentuates the seemingly organic orchestral underpinnings of these songs, with their rises and falls, rich melodies and natural builds.

“Rolling Stone” kicks off the second half with gentle horns and vibes augmenting a superb song about the resilience of love: “Sometimes I feel like I’m falling, falling fast and falling free, she said my darling you’re not falling, always looked like you were flying to me / but I fear I’ve grown a rolling stone inside of me, she said oh don’t you know, the rolling stones stop at the sea, and that’s where I’ll be.” I won’t ruin the closing line for you, but it’s absolutely worth investing 3:23 to hear it.

“Start A Fire” smolders along smartly, title track “Whispers” blossoms nicely with help from strings and background vocals before winding down to another perfect closing line, and the moving “Riding To New York” present a novelistic sketch of a “dark and overcast” character longing to see his daughter and grandchildren one last time. “Scare Away The Dark” closes things out on a brighter note, an anthem of resilience that urges the listener to “sing, sing at the top of your voice, and love without fear in your heart, feel, feel like you still have a choice, if we all light up we can scare away the dark.”

The multifaceted, expertly crafted Whispers would be worth it for “27,” “Rolling Stone” and “Scare Away The Dark” alone; they’re that strong. But like most really good albums, Whispers feels greater than the sum of its parts; it’s both a set of notable individual songs and a meaningfully sequenced song cycle that offers an intimate introduction to the world of Michael David Rosenberg. I’ll be back.

Rating: A-

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