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Passenger's 'All The Little Lights' is More Than "Let Her Go," by Ilsa Miller

We all remember “Let Her Go” by Passenger playing on the radio when we were kids. It was a bittersweet song of realizing what is missed only after it’s gone, especially love. Many of us recognize the melody and could probably recall the chorus of the 2012 hit. Despite the song’s popularity among U.S. listeners, the rest of the album remains largely unpopular.

All The Little Lights, released by Black Crow Records and Nettwerk in February of 2012, contains 12 tracks, the final of which is a live recording from The Borderline in London. It is the fourth album by Michael David Rosenberg, better known as Passenger, and it does not spare itself from heavy topics for subject material. Nor does he refrain from crass lyricism when it serves the topic of a song. By orchestrating his tracks this way, an uncensored look at life is fostered, peeling back the walls of what could otherwise be an idealized life view. Unrelenting and direct, Rosenberg’s album boasts a theme of appreciating life even through its difficulties, while not ignoring the impact of those hardships.

Made popular on the radio, “Let Her Go” is arguably the least profane and most lighthearted of the album’s tracks, making it a good candidate to be played on air. Simple folksy melodies extend through the album, often with an appropriately spirited piano accompaniment and vocals poignant enough to convey a crafted message. Frequently, I find myself listening to these songs when life is too turbulent or unpredictable; the soft lyrics with complex messages are perfect for a weary mind.

The titular song on the album, “All The Little Lights,” is one of the more somber pieces recorded. It details events that have impacted Rosenberg throughout his life. With each event, he notes that a little light of his has gone out. He lays out a metaphor for innocence and joy for each and every light, until they all inevitably extinguish, presumably at the time of one’s death:

“One lights up / Every time you feel love in your heart / One dies when it moves away.”

It is a very soft song with instrumentation in both the intro and outro that remind me of the stars, likely a type of keyboard instrument such as the crotales or bells. Despite the depressing nature of the song, it carries a gentle insinuation for the listener to take advantage of the time they have remaining before all of their lights are burnt out and gone.

Another deeply important song to me on the album is “Life’s For The Living,” a tale about the daily occurrences of life. People live their lives as the narrator walks through the town observing the scenes around them. The majority of the lyrics focus on small things that most people would overlook — details of an outfit or the implementation of a nail into a wall. In doing so, however, it doesn’t make these details any less important. By explicitly describing the environments the observer finds themself in throughout the song, it assigns an importance to otherwise mundane happenings.

No matter how many times I have heard this song, it feels like a description of depression in lyrical form. The title stems from the line “Life’s for the living, so live it / Or you're better off dead.” It’s perfectly blunt for the weight it carries.

Every detail the observer describes fuels the beauty of the world that can be seen by any onlooker — a host of beautiful, meaningful things that can be treasured and enjoyed if only we invest ourselves. Passenger also does a stellar job of phrasing the dredges of life that weigh on those struggling with their mental health: “They take your dreams down and stick them in storage / You can have ‘em back son / When you’ve paid off your mortgage and loans.”

One of Passenger’s many love songs, “Patient Love” tells the story of someone longing to be reunited with the person they love, even if that person does not feel the same. Not even the passage of time will dull this desire, even as he saves special moments and pieces of things to share with this individual. It is a deeply melancholic song that makes the listener ache for things long since passed and never to be enjoyed again, as well as the dream for fulfillment of something that will never be despite continued hope.

One of the more jovial songs on the album is “Holes,” which is especially upbeat for the weight of the topics within the song. It tells the story of a patient, who lost everything when he fell into a coma, waking up soon after his mother is asked if he should be taken off life support and of a mother whose husband abandoned her along with his kids.

The optimism of this song originates from the idea “when you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose.” Both of these characters have hit their version of rock bottom, but rather than give up, they both push on with their lives. Even with tragedy and the emotional pain it brings, it is still possible to push onward and learn how to live with the misfortunes of the past. Passenger crescendos the last several repetitions of the chorus, keeping the listener engaged as the lyrics do not change, before the accompaniment drops out to allow his voice to cut through impactfully. The final restatement of the chorus feels almost as if the listener is being spoken to directly.

The last song on the album is the most aggressive, especially with it having been recorded live and not within the confines of a controlled studio. “I Hate” begins just like that: “Well, I hate …” as Rosenberg begins his list of habits and observations that he finds aggravating. He starts the song with his visceral disdain for racists and hypocrites, a serious opener that he follows up with less serious occurrences that are merely an annoyance like picky eaters and porta-potties. Before long though, he criticizes the entertainment industry and how it preys on young children, causing them to develop self-image issues. It does not restrain commentary about difficult matters, but it presents them in such a way that doesn’t leave the listener feeling bereft at the end of the song. Employing a major key, as well as recording it in front of a live audience amplifies both the humor in the song’s beginning and emphasizes the stupidity of the industry at the end.

As the album artfully conveys the hardships of life through both lyric and instrumentation, it’s a shame more of the songs off of this album haven’t reached the acclaim that “Let Her Go” enjoyed. Rosenberg has found a niche in this style of music and has continued to write in it to this day.

Since 2013, Passenger has released several more albums and singles, the most recent of which being Birds That Flew and Ships That Sailed, released in April of this year. It presents another pensive series of works focused on the passage of time and the forewent opportunities within life while still retaining his bluesy-folksy sound. With nearly 10 years between his fourth album and his latest, his newer songs carry a wiser edge that his older songs sought to emulate, as well as a world-weary tone that All The Little Lights understood but couldn’t quite obtain at that moment in Rosenberg’s career. Nevertheless, both albums are well worth giving a listen (repeatedly, judging by my Spotify history). All the Little Lights, though, will always remain one that never quite saw the holistic acclaim it deserved.

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