An extremely touching, beautiful, and fragile collection of songs about the human condition.
There are few experiences as satisfyingly introspective and life-affirming as listening to the work of a unique, profound singer-songwriter. Like contemporaries Milo Greene and Greg Laswell, as well as more well-known artists like Paul Simon, Ben Folds, and Leonard Cohen, Britain’s Passenger (the pseudonym of Michael Rosenberg) is remarkably honest, fragile, focused, and confident. His newest release, All the Little Lights, is a graceful collection of remarkably powerful songs.
Rosenberg formed Passenger in 2003, alongside BAFTA award-winning composer Andrew Philips. Although Passenger consists of several musicians, it’s essentially Rosenberg’s baby. Of the name, he’s says, “I think it fits my observational style of writing ...the idea that you're in the passenger seat of a moving vehicle…watching the world go by and witnessing things of people's lives…" This detached, third-party perspective can be felt throughout the lyrical content of All the Little Lights; however, Rosenberg’s delivery makes each moment feel entirely personal.
Opener “Things That Stop You Dreaming” sets the stage well. A mixture of sorrowful strings and guitar arpeggios, coupled with restrained percussion, provides a perfect introduction for Rosenberg’s poignant words and charmingly thin voice. His verses essentially consist of rattled-off poetry, and he fills them with sentiments about how the struggles of being poor shouldn’t stop you from feeling rich in other ways. The song’s chorus—“If you can’t get what you love, you learn to love the things you’ve got”—speaks volumes about Rosenberg’s amiable philosophy on life and happiness. Fortunately, these sublime qualities are maintained throughout the record.
A catchier and more direct song, “Let Her Go” is still an extremely touching slice of folk rock. Specifically, its delicate piano and string accompaniment adds a lot to its impact. “Staring at the Stars”, on the other hand, is a bit more lively and fun, no doubt due to its banjo and horns, as well as its faster tempo. As for the title track, it recalls the poetic brevity of the first track; its production is ideally reserved yet effective. Rosenberg's voice, combined with a bit of feminized harmony, staccato guitar playing, and various touches of percussion, makes for a very moving sound. A bit later, “Circles” takes the same principles to new heights, which makes it the best song on All the Little Lights. Few songwriters have ever managed to craft something this beautiful.
Throughout its initial eleven songs, the album effectively pierces the heart of its listeners, forcing them to draw on their every significant moment of regret, loss, and doubt before restoring their faith in life simply by sounding so utterly wonderful (after all, as I’ve often said, if music this special exists, hope is still possible). However, All the Little Lights ends with a bit of humor. Recorded live at The Borderline in London, “I Hate” consists of a systematic list of people and things Rosenberg, well, hates. He rhymes brilliantly couplets that denounce celebrities (Cher), social institutions (Facebook), the media ( The X Factor), and kinds of people (picky eaters, smokers). Of course, there’s a layer of social commentary underneath the profane sing-a-long surface, such as when he discusses how adolescents shouldn’t become anorexic just so they can model their favorite actors and sex symbols. Considering how overwhelmingly emotional the preceding songs are, “I Hate” closes the album with an appreciated change in tone and direction.
All the Little Lights is a masterful work of art, plain and simple. Finding a voice (both literally and figuratively) as special and important as Rosenberg’s amongst all the countless singer/songwriters out there is, to use a cliché, like finding a diamond in the rough. Few albums contain such a fantastic synthesis of production, songwriting, and performance. The most tragic thing about All the Little Lights isn’t its content—it’s the fact that it will remain unnoticed by countless people who would benefit from hearing it. Hopefully, after reading this, you won’t be one of them.