Despite the similarities that blanket its selections, there's no denying that Whispers II is an overwhelmingly touching, serene, classy, and earnest work.
For the past several decades, listeners have cherished the singer/songwriter genre for its emphasis on solemn storytelling, poignant lyrical meditation/social commentary, comforting melodies, and stylish arrangements. Despite their occasionally tongue-in-cheek slants, artists like Joni Mitchell, Elton John, Billy Joel, Tori Amos, Sufjan Stevens, James Taylor, Regina Spektor, Andrew McMahon, and Ben Folds have represented the joys, sorrows, and even trivialities of everyday life with masterful precision and hypnotic appeal. However, perhaps no modern artist wears their soul on their sleeve with as much devastating fragility as Passenger (Michael David Rosenberg). Each of his prior LPs has showcased an unmatched blend of charmingly timid singing, relatable yet profound sentiments, and well-suited instrumentation, and his newest effort, Whispers II is no different. Taken for what it is (a stripped-down, Americana-esque collection of confessional odes), it's a masterful sequence of somber reflections and hopeful outlooks that possesses power and longevity despite its lack of variety and luscious production.
A spiritual successor to last year's Whispers, the disc finds Rosenberg continuing to favor a sparse, laidback approach to composing and performing (which may disappoint fans who adored the sonic embellishments of his 2012 breakthrough, All the Little Lights). This should come as no surprise, though, considering that these songs were written and recorded at the same time as the ones on the prior full-length, so it's more like the second half of a double album than a proper follow-up or new direction. In any case, Whispers II finds Rosenberg as embittered, candid, humble, and affective as ever, with its ten tracks further pinpointing moods, thoughts, and experiences as only he can.
As already mentioned, the majority of the record sounds a lot alike (which is both a benefit and detriment, to be honest), so aside from a few idiosyncrasies here and there, Whispers II consists mostly of subdued acoustic guitar arpeggios, warm strings, delicate percussion and piano, occasional female backing vocals, and of course, Rosenberg's wonderfully brittle English voice. This deficiency of diversity notwithstanding, these factors culminate in a sum that's patently arresting, pensive, and soothing, leaving listeners frozen in contemplation of their own mistakes and meanings.
Take opener "Fear of Fear", for example. It finds Rosenberg making endearingly poetic requests (such as "Fill my cup half empty / Cause it's never been half full" and "Fill my time wishing she was here") with impenetrable conviction and a perfectly suited score. Anyone with a fondness for simplicity in happiness will connect with it. Afterward, "A Thousand Matches" is more upbeat, with horns, dense harmonies, and quick six-string plucking spawning a hopeful vibe, while both "Travelling" and "David" evolve from mere voice and guitar laments to fully-fledged rural galas, with pedal steel guitar and mournful orchestration adding layers of inviting introspection.
While not especially, well, special in terms of its music, the central focus of loss and romantic autonomy that penetrates "The Way That I Need You" is emotionally crushing, with realizations like "So I'm leaving before there's nothing to believe in / I'm just craving for a love I never knew / Please don't go mistreating me / I'm not saying you've been misleading me / Just not needing me the way that I need you" capturing heartache with utterly beautiful accuracy. Likewise, the opening arpeggio of "Strangers" evokes both the frame and feelings of Simon & Garfunkel's masterful "Bookends Theme", while the paced percussion, cosseted horns, and consoling melody of "Nothing's Change" concludes the record with uplifting closure.
Despite the similarities that blanket its selections, there's no denying that Whispers II is an overwhelmingly touching, serene, classy, and earnest work. Not only does Passenger once again manifest his own deepest woes, elations, and uncertainties into captivating choruses and erudite arrangements, but he also crafts tales of the human condition that anyone can appreciate and empathize with. While a more lavish treatment and a bit more range would've helped these tracks even more, they're quite remarkable as is, making Whispers II the exact triumph it sets out to be.