I’ve been listening to the new Passenger album a lot over the past few days after chatting with Mike Rosenberg (aka Passenger) and identifying him as one of the few superstars I have heard of but never until now listened to. Superstar? Why did I say that, as the new album replays and replays and smothers me in warmth as the songs, always familiar but alluring, flow like ocean waves lapping onto a pebble beach somewhere, even though the songs are about drunkenness and heartache, which of course is also familiar and alluring.
And then I get it, when a mate’s fourteen year old daughter comes round and says: that’s sounds like………is that the guy who sang “Let Her Go”?. Indeed, it is, but you were only 5 when that came out, Shobha, how on earth do you remember that? Who is the superstar then?
Sounding like a melange of Cat Stevens and Dave Cousins (Strawbs) one thing is clear, Passenger has crossover power. And probably to my ear goes wider and deeper into folk rock pop than his good mate young Ed Sheeran.
And now he releases his thirteenth album Songs For The Drunk And Broken-Hearted which could be the soundtrack for everyone during these grim times.
Passenger started off as a band in the early 2000s, they made a record but didn’t really go anywhere so Mike buggered off to Australia and went busking again for five years, including one very unsuccessful attempt in Auckland. Actually, he left school at 16 to go busking, which might have been a bad move (certainly his mother thought so), but hard work and lots of street education have paid off, and ever since “Let Her Go” it’s been a whirlwind and know he feels like he’s a 'bit of a grownup'.
Ed Sheeran is seven years younger, and they met when Ed was 16 (seems to be the launching age for singer/songwriter/troubadours), but in a lot of ways Ed has ended up as the mentor for whom Mike has immense respect if not emulation. One-man bands with crossover appeal certainly have simplicity as a business model which also means the band doesn’t have to be paid, unless there is one, and Mike has occasionally toured with a band even though he mostly goes solo.
John Butler (John Butler Trio) has also been a mentor and a friend from the early days when he supported them on tour. Mike has huge respect for John. (Michael Barker might well have been the drummer in those days).
So now we come to the album, written largely before 2020 went up in viral droplets, and just after Mike had a break-up and was on his own with his two cats and then lockdown happened, which he characteristically understates as 'grim', especially now. But lockdown has had its upside, in that he was able to rewrite and replace some songs and generally reflect a little on his output before release, something he has not allowed the time for in 'normal' (now 'traditional') times. Plus there were lots of new songs, and a mini-release on streaming platforms called Patchwork, with all proceeds going to a food bank charity, so there’s a good deal of Passenger which is philanthropic, and I must say that this is not surprising, given the down to earth modesty of the man and general all round likeability. A very nice bloke.
Songs For The Drunk and Broken-Hearted was recorded with producer Chris Vallejo and given his mantra of continuous improvement and learning from each release Mike thinks it is his best yet, and the first one where he has taken/been given the time to revisit, replace and improve. He hears a bit of Smiths in this record, the juxtaposition of Johnny Marr jangle and Morrisey melancholic. Also a little Beatles in terms of chord progressions. But he also counts Jim Croce and Don McLean and more recent Americana stars such as Townes Van Zandt and John Prine as idols and influencers.
So he can’t fail if he puts all that in the mix, can he?
And it’s a beautiful album, which comes in two versions, one with full backing band and a deluxe edition which adds acoustic versions of many of the songs, allowing a glimpse into the solo live sound. Passenger’s intonation adds an almost subliminal sexy husk with a sight distortion, and that obviously adds to the appeal, of simple but sweet songs backed by tuneful picking and occasional orchestration. Songs you can listen to and never tire. Songs like “Sword in the Stone” (Mike’s favourite, and re-released last Friday as a remix produced by Ed), “Suzanne”, which is a magnificent successor to Leonard Cohen's (different) song, and “Sandstorm” are just three songs all beginning with S, which stands for standout, but that would be too discriminatory because they are all good songs.
I sense a journey into the past to find out what I’ve been missing since “Let Her Go” all those years ago. And I don’t feel anywhere near drunk nor broken-hearted anymore.