I may have remained forever oblivious to the British singer/songwriter phenomenon known to the world as Passenger, were it not for the happy occasion of my friend’s engagement.
Jenny and Vince met on an online dating site. They skyped for several months and were a dead-cert thing within minutes of meeting in person. Before you could say Findsomeone.com, my friendship status was upgraded to that of bridesmaid and the three of us were huddled over Spotify exploring song options for Jenny to walk down the aisle to.
Jenny leaned towards Ed Sheeran. I favoured something moving and cinematic.
Vince looked disenchanted.
When he suggested that we find a song by ‘Passenger’ I moved my face into a supportively ‘bridesmaidian’ expression of hopeful anticipation. Hope was not my dominant feeling. Vince is 12 years older than Jen, which puts the locus of his cultural coming-of-age in a decade of music I am not that familiar with. I didn’t expect to like what he liked.
He landed on ‘The One You Love’, a duet with Katie Miller-Heidkle and Passenger – which, of course, turned out to be perfect.
One big piece of humble pie and three days of of obsessive Spotify listening later, I was converted, devoted, elated, and as well acquainted with Passenger’s back catalogue an any early devotee. His songwriting was jaw-dropping. The lyrical and musical synapses in my brain snap, crackled and popped in delight.
At the time, mid 2014, my friend Luke and I were in the early stages of the recording project that would become my debut album, ‘Not All the Leaves Are Falling’. You can imagine my admiration when I discovered that Luke was friends with Mike (the name Passenger’s mum calls him) and my excitement when I learned that he had a new album coming out.
I bought ‘Whispers’ at the first moment possible. After absorbing the album on endless commutes, I sat down with a coffee one morning when I should have been working and tried to put into words the way this music moves me.
Whispers | A Personal Response
Passenger as Poet.
‘Whispers’ is a revelation. The songwriting is really good – heartbreakingly good. His songs carry a traveller’s wisdom of one who traverses geographical, social and interior landscapes and reports back what he sees. I listen as I drive to work and the songs linger with me all day, leaving vivid imagery and stirring cinematic scenes bouncing around my heart.
His lyrics are full of vivid colours and scenes that pops like an autumn tree blazing against a sharp blue sky. The opening track, ‘Coins in a Fountain’ sets the tone for the album with a kaleidoscopic medley of vivid imagery – coins glinting up from the bottom of a fountain, a hill in the highlands, an old-fashioned lantern shining in the dark, a wild and lovely island in the middle of a sad old sea, each scene carrying the energy of an unfolding story.
As the album continues, empathetic storytelling, social commentary, soulful narrative and rousing anthems all roll along with Passenger’s trademark evocative melodies.
Each time I listen my heart is broken open.
Passenger as Prophet
His closing anthem ‘Scare Away the Dark’ laments the Western malaise of mindless work and consumerism and call us away from our computers and out into nature – to a greater awareness, to a deeper connectedness. He is not offering himself as a saviour, nor is he pointing to one particularly – but he points consistently to Love, a source which can be infinitely mined. In his own words, Love is the only song he sings.
His songs calls us to self-awareness, to honesty and to empathy – all precursors to spiritual awakening and personal transformation.
These songs speak and call to us. They challenge, call, woo and beckon.
I think Passenger is remarkable in the way he naturally inhabits that important role of an artist in society – to act as a prophet, as a mirror of who we are and who we are becoming as a culture. Artists process experience through creativity, and some artists seem to have a particular knack for reflecting through their art the dynamics of their generation. Their personal reflections become a reflection of something wider than themselves. Passenger has this quality in spades.
Passenger as Storyteller
Passenger is a songwriter who writes close to the marrow of the human condition in all it’s tragedy and comedy, hopes and fear, nobility and ridiculousness. The particular is often the shortest route to the universal and Mike taps this in his story-telling songs. ‘Golden Leaves’ and ‘Riding to New York’ tell the story of particular people in particular contexts, who also somehow become every man, every woman, every family.
“Every man has within himself the entire human condition” ~ Michel de Montaigne
‘Golden Leaves’ carries musical and lyrical echoes of ‘Starry, Starry Night’, Don Mclean’s beautiful ode to Vincent Van Gogh. The colour and cinematic imagery of its lyrics (‘eyes as bright as a spanish sun’, ‘we are two golden leaves clinging desperately to winter trees’) tells a story that is equally beautiful and sad. He captures a dynamic of love grown old without flinching and in being true to the telling creates something that rings with reality as well as with beauty.
‘Riding to New York’ is a narrative woven with such heart-breaking detail that I find it hard listen to. The songs tells a story of a man dying of lung cancer who is biking to New York to see his children and grandchildren one last time. Full of longing, loss, love, memory and regret it is unbearably sad and perfectly beautiful.
I recently saw a documentary called ‘In Search of Chopin’, in which several modern day pianists spoke about playing Chopin’s piano compositions. Chopin knew heart-break, in exile and in love, and several of the performers spoke of the startling intimacy of some of Chopin’s works and their feeling of trespassing on private emotional territory when they played them.
I find something similar happens to me in Mike’s storytelling songs. I experience one of those ‘tresspassing’ moments in the final verse of ‘Riding to New York’, in which the central character turns his thoughts to his dead wife.
And I’d go up to the churchyard one last time.
Lay flowers down for the woman who gave me the best years of my life.’
Everything in me wants to give this man the dignity of distance in that scene, and yet whether I want to or not, I find myself standing next to him in that moment, watching him lay flowers down for the last time.
Call & Response
The self-awareness in Passenger’s songwrittiting calls us to our own. In looking out of the window of his own soul, he somehow creates a mirror to ours. His lyrics may be revealing, but equally our response to them reveals something about us.
For me, that is Passenger’s power – the capacity he has to deeply empathise with his fellow human travellers, to emotionally inhabit stories other than his own and tell them in a way that makes us care too.
We are a pretty guarded lot on the whole. Emotional distance is western malady. This body of work breaks down those protective barriers but leaves you better off for it, more open, more empathetic, even more loving, if you let it.
In other words, Whispers is not an album that will bear indifference.
It will either soften your heart or harden it. You will either open your heart to the reality of other lives, other peoples stories, and to the inherent dignity and depth of your own – or it will provoke your resistance and compel you to seek out a songwriter who doesn’t require you to be so fully human.