After having some sort of religious, or possibly sexual (or possibly both) experience at Passenger's set, I knew when I pressed play on the first track of their debut album, Wicked Man's Rest, I was going to like what I heard.
I'm not always keen on reviewing records that I dove into with that sort of strong preconception, because I think there's only so much gushing and blabbering you can do about how amazing something is before you start sounding like a school girl who just discovered Zack Morris. But with Brighton, U.K.-based Passenger, I wanted to know if the live performance I'd seen could be matched or outdone by the album experience. I wanted to get a better sense for who these guys are than you can perceive in a 20-minute set.
Wicked Man's Rest is the illegitimate lovechild of pop and folk. Singer/songwriter/guitarist Mike Rosenberg and guitarist/producer Andrew Phillips have a keen understanding of the parameters of their instruments, of song construction, of the marriage between lyric and melody. The result: an incredibly smart album that takes those fun, stock pop melodies and transforms them into something new, with enough lyrical and musical innovation to make pop gold.
Often, I hear new music or I'm introduced to a new band that I like, but I can't really imagine a place for it in the pop music scene, usually because I can name three or four other bands already making similar-enough music. But with Passenger, I can see them stepping in to fill a void. It's intelligent, singable, movable, emotionally relatable, intensely personal, bright, complex pop music.
I love it when bands play with lyrics in terms of content and subject. A perfect example is "Night Vision Binoculars," where Rosenberg sings about stalking a co-worker with a "thermal flask of tea/up there in your neighbor's tree."
The lyrics are a constant strength of the album from beginning to end. After reading the liner notes and really understanding all the words, I definitely felt I'd read the words of a writer, not someone looking to rhyme two completely incompatible words in the name of pop music and making an extra dollar -- or pound, as the case may be. Rosenberg (and Phillips, on "Four Horses") is an extraordinary writer, perhaps matched only by his vocal delivery.
In one moment he is casual, chatty, fitting words together succinctly like a poetic genius, and in the next his voice is painful, piercing, melancholy, making you wonder if the strength of the songs actually does lie in the lyrics themselves or if it hinges on the grain of his voice.
Other than "Night Vision Binoculars," my favorite tracks on the album include "Do What You Like," a fast-paced pop anthem of unrequited love that reminds me of the carefree days of early 90s acoustic alt-rock, "Things You've Never Done" and the title track, "Wicked Man's Rest," which stole my heart during their live performance.