Favorite Track: “Nothing Aches Like a Broken Heart” Least Favorite Track: “Sandstorm”
For over a decade, the English singer-songwriter Passenger re-wrote slight variations of the same ten songs over and over again; consistently sounding as if he was bound to merely a handful of musical ideas. Before 2009, Passenger was a band. They eventually dissolved leaving Rosenberg alone to keep musically pushing forward. He kept the band’s name and began releasing his solo material. After his 2013 track “Let Her Go” went on to become one of the most successful singles of the decade, he was left with the funding and notoriety to continue his musical endeavours as long as he wished to. On the surface one would assume that given his new-found creative freedom, the quality of his work would increase; instead the opposite became the reality. His following eight projects were painfully unambitious and low-effort, as he began to recycle old material for years to come. At times these LP’s even felt like shameless cash-grabs, as he would release each of their “deluxe” versions to streaming services, and then remove the original projects. The problem was that the only deluxe material that those additional projects included were acoustic versions of the original songs on the album. To boot, nearly every track he released was acoustic to begin with and the most his updated versions would ever do were remove a light synth or simple drum groove.
Most of Passenger’s past work is lackluster folk balladry through and through; simple acoustic guitar chords, fake-deep lyrics, and one dimensional instrumentation. It often felt as if Michael Rosenberg took himself far too seriously, and his style of writing was often so forced that it became difficult to think of him as a genuine songwriter. However, his newest album acts as a much-welcomed yet surprising change of pace. Songs for the Drunk and Broken Hearted is not only a much faster paced and higher-tempo based album than anything else Passenger has ever released, but it also is the first time that the English singer has instrumentally branched out. This LP’s instrumentation isn’t anything out of the ordinary in the grand scheme of the musical universe, but in terms of Passenger’s discography, it is easily his most instrumentally affluent album thus far.
Whereas much of Michael Rosenberg’s past work lacked structural depth, Songs for the Drunk and Broken Hearted feels like the first time that he has written tracks with true progressions. Instead of being written by a man with an acoustic guitar and no other musical skill, who’s better fit for a cover band, Songs for the Drunk and Broken Hearted obliterates its predecessors on an arrangement front. Splashes of keys and interesting drum grooves work their way into tracks like “What You’re Waiting For” and “Remember to Forget” in ways that Passenger’s previous work doesn’t come close to. This results in an album that is overall more memorable, and feels far more polished.
Even though Songs for the Drunk and Broken Hearted is a gigantic improvement for Rosenberg, it doesn’t come without its flaws. Nonetheless, its high points are already some of the most notable points in Passenger’s entire career. Track seven, “A Song for the Drunk and Broken Hearted”, features some bright and vibrant electric guitars, a driving drum groove, and even some slick horn accompaniments at the midway point. Lyrically the song is kind of all over the place, but from a songwriting stance Rosenberg includes some very clever details that make the track especially sticky. One worth noting is the rhyme scheme of the track’s chorus. “For the joker laughs along/as the jester’s outsmarted/The gambler tries to win back what he’s lost. And the sad man sings a song/For the drunk and broken hearted/and the fool he never knows how much it costs”. Not only is rhyming outsmarted/hearted great songwriting, but the rhyme scheme utilizes an A,B,C,A,B pattern: something that is not common in pop music of this nature. It gives the track a far more memorable hook and overall interesting dynamic.
As good as “A Song for the Drunk and Broken Hearted” is, the album’s true highlight is track nine: “Nothing Aches Like a Broken Heart”. The song is a bleak reminder that context matters; it is important to acknowledge how large of an instrumental and production improvement this song is from almost anything else Passenger has ever released. The way that this track brings you in with its slow and saucy intro, just to spit you back out again on the other side of it with an extremely catchy progression is absolutely fantastic. Rosenberg does an absolutely fantastic job of building tempo throughout this song’s run time in a way that feels reminiscent of legendary singer-songwriter Billy Joel. The rendition of the second verse to a backdrop of vocal harmonies and backing vocals adds a slight variant to the instrumentation from the first verse; a detail that builds on the song’s foundation exceptionally well. As it goes on it starts to feel more and more like Rosenberg is drunk and broken hearted, pouring his guts out to you atop a bar counter. However, the track’s shining moment truly comes toward its end, when we get an absolutely invigorating piano bridge to bring us to the explosion of the final rendition of the chorus.
One of Songs for the Drunk and Broken Hearted biggest flaws is that it doesn’t seem to be able to string consistently enjoyable tracks together. The bulk of the album is enjoyable, but no moments come close to rivaling that of “Nothing Aches Like a Broken Heart”, and some songs act as complete opposites of it. Take track six, “Sandstorm” for example. This cut sounds exactly like everything that made Passenger’s past work so boring. The instrumental is barren, and the lyrics here are borderline cringey. “Cover/darling take cover/ for I am the sandstorm and you are the sand”. These are the exact nature of lyrics that originally made Rosenberg’s songwriting seem so ingenuine. Although he manages to not completely fall back into his ways, there are also multiple cuts that still feel underwhelming. “Tip of My Tongue”, reads like folk-pop 101, and is extremely underwritten, while “Sword from the Stone”, feels way too vacant to act as a compelling intro. The latter is an alright tune at its core, but lacks the bite to be memorable.
Songs for the Drunk and Broken Hearted isn’t a perfect album, but it already stands as an early contender for one of the most pleasantly-surprising releases of 2021. While it isn’t exactly a full artistic revolution for Michael Rosenberg, it is surely a step in the right direction and feels wildly better than what was expected. The songwriter has seemingly remedied his art of the fake-deep qualities that at one time, plagued it with an aura of dishonesty, and the result is the most interesting set of songs that Passenger has put out in a long time. It’s amazing what can happen when you stop taking yourself too seriously.