Passenger aka Mike Rosenberg has been writing songs with a prolificacy that would leave most other songwriters, Willie Nelson aside maybe, in the dust. He’s barely released a new record before another set of songs present themselves, sometimes through gigs, sometimes through clips posted on YouTube. Hearing a song in a live setting or acoustically before it gets the studio treatment is something of an adventure – sometimes, as with the closing track ‘Home’ to 2016’s ‘Young as the Morning Old as the Sea’ which became transformed into an epic which closed most of his gigs from that year, the metamorphosis is really striking, like you can’t believe the amount of life he can squeeze out of one song; his arrangements are superb. But Passenger is one of those rare artists whose way with songs means they can exist in totally different settings and versions and all hit you equally as hard. His lyricism is as fine as any British songwriter right now, often sad but so saliently dealing with the minutiae of life for characters that feel so real that they can sometimes feel devastating in their perfected prose (see ‘Catch in the Dark’ for exhibit one).
The new album then finds Rosenberg tilt his Stetson towards americana and gather together songs related to this theme, some of which have been around for a while, and it’s not a genre he comes to without an air of authenticity – his dad is from New Jersey and growing up he used to spend every other summer there as a kid. His back catalogue has touched on the genre in the form of country leanings on several tracks previously – ‘Travelling Alone’ from his lovely ‘Whispers 2’ record or ‘Bullets’ from its predecessor were both a signpost towards the type of music that he obviously has an ear for – but this is the first time he’s produced a whole album of americana both thematically and musically, and it’s happily a beautifully tight record, with layers of lapsteel, mandolin and banjo (although not too much of the latter to scare away existing fans – Brits and banjos, that age old war..) saturating every track with a rich sound evocative of the landscape in which it sits.
The album kicks off with its lead track ‘Hell or High Water’, an atmospheric start to the record focusing on the complexities of why relationships don’t work out which builds to a dark crescendo. Rosenberg can write tunes and ‘Hell or High Water’ as an opener has a hook which latches on to you like a keyhole limpet. And it goes on from there. Some of it is just gorgeous straightahead americana such as the mother earth vibe of ‘Eagle Bear Buffalo’ which could be a lost Glen Campbell classic, while other tracks are more contemplative – ‘Ghost Town’ in particular with its picture of the once wealthy city of Detroit, is redolent with imagery:
“They don’t make cars like they used to here, times they change and factories close….
See the pride and the shame like fire and the flame, well it burns through every man.
And drops them like drunken soldiers on the river banks”
‘To Be Free’ has a contemporary resonance too – an autobiographical family story of the journey Rosenberg’s grandparents made first to the US and eventually to England as refugees. Songs about the struggles of immigrants set in the context of an americana album are more important than ever right now for obvious reasons, and the value of narrating personal experiences can’t be underestimated – it’s worth a thousand political slogans.
“Like feathers on the ocean breeze
They went spinning and tumbling ‘cross the sea
Never know where they’d come down
Or who they’d be”
Other album highlight include the quite love-ly (literally) ‘Heart to Love’ which contains one of the best melodies he’s written and the layered backing vocals he incorporates so well, while ‘He Leaves You Cold’ could easily have been taken from ‘Heartbreaker’ era Ryan Adams. ‘Let’s Go’ alters one of his better know song titles into something else altogether with the refrain “If life is a journey, love is a signpost, freedom’s a fork in the road”, and the title track ‘Runaway’ with its mariachi-style horns and low down guitar which drifts in through the bridge is just a delight. The album closes with the song ‘Survivor’ which thankfully isn’t about the band of the same name, but instead one of those epics he consistently closes with well and that’s entirely relatable at a time when so many people are struggling to keep their heads above the water.
Passenger may still be a new name for americana fans, even in the UK, partly because his background hasn’t been in the genre particularly, partly because vocally he can take some getting used to and it has to be said partly because he’s a popular artist who can sell out big venues and hey, we don’t often do big and popular. But it shouldn’t put you off – Rosenberg once said something along the lines of wanting to record records that don’t necessarily garner critics praise but that you’ll reach for in the evening for years to come, records that feel comfortable that you want to play to your friends and family. The comfort is not superficial and the basic humanity in his lyricism can’t help but warm you to him as a person. He writes songs to live for. Passenger has recorded one of the definitive UK americana albums of 2018.
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Mike Rosenberg turns his hand to americana and delivers one of the albums of 2018