One of the artists I have been studying over the past year is Mike Rosenberg, known more commonly by his stage name ‘Passenger’. He is a good example of an artist for whom strong lyrics are the primary concern. Every song is drenched with rich metaphors and imagery, and he manages to approach subjects with a direct simplicity that makes it all look easy. He has a prolific catalogue of hundreds of songs, and here I have attempted to organise a few of them by theme.
As good a place as any to start is with the “man in a hole” theme, when you are rock bottom and feel utterly stuck in a mundane existence. ‘Staring at Stars’ paints a picture of a jaded individual worn out by life. ''Beer bloats our spoilt guts / and shit jobs keep us in ruts". He looks back to how at school you are taught “you can do anything if you put your mind to it”, but then “disappointment crashed the ball” and you are left “lying drunkenly staring at the stars”. ‘Fear of Fear’ is a similarly captures this state of jadedness and giving up with it all, “fill my lungs full of smoke / fill my belly full of beer / fill my nose full of cocaine / fill my eyes full of tears”. Finally, in ‘Whispers’ he is desperately trying to figure out his place in the world, but there is just too much noise coming from every direction, “all I need is a whisper, in a world that only shouts”.
Part of the charm of these downcast songs is how they maintain a humour and an energy that revels in the absurdity of it all. ‘The Wrong Direction’ is an upbeat acknowledgement of his inability to hold onto love. Similarly in its infectious rhythm, ‘Holes’ is a positive anthem of resilience when faced with the heartbreak and failure that life throws, “we’ve got holes in our hearts, but we carry on”.
‘Remember to Forget’ is his wish to escape his life for just a night. It contains the lyric “I’m a future gazer, a past dweller / and I’ve always been a storyteller” which provides a useful way to organise the next bunch of his songs; those looking back nostalgically to the past, and those looking forward to the future with hope.
Firstly, on the theme of nostalgia, Mike has written a few songs with beautiful imagery capturing the magic of childhood. ‘When We Were Young’ captures the feeling of thinking you are going to live forever, with everything in reach, before all of a sudden time starts slipping away, “years leave quicker every time they come”. In ‘Circles’, he paints a picture of being boys who “carved our names on a clocktower door”, throwing kites in the wind. In the chorus he realises the circle of life theme, that one day they will grow old and eventually “they’ll throw our dust to the wind”.
Of course a large portion of any songwriter’s catalogue touches on the theme of love, and Rosenberg has written a few of these through this nostalgic lens. ‘Queenstown’ is soaked with nostalgic imagery of sitting on the pier, “the water that night / shimmering under the restaurant lights”. ‘Golden Leaves’ similarly looks back to when “teeth were white and our skin was young / eyes as bright as the Spanish sun”, before painting the eponymous metaphor of how “now my dear we are two golden leaves / clinging desperately to winter trees”. ‘Beautiful Birds’ is similarly structured, starting with how they used to be like two beautiful birds who “would light up the sky when we fly”, until "one day you asked for a different song / one that I just couldn’t sing ". Of course, his breakthrough hit ‘Let Her Go’ falls into this category of nostalgic romance, how “you only know you love her when you let her go”.
Turning in the other direction, to looking forward, Passenger has written some songs rich in wanderlust imagery of escapism. ‘Life’s for the Living’ paints the picture of a mundane city where “puddles splash huddles of bus stop crows”. He is “sick of this town, this blind man’s forage”, and vows to go and live more meaningfully in the world “with a mattress of leaves and a blanket of stars”. ‘Scare Away the Dark’ contains similar frustrations and a similar prescription of how we should be living “we should stare at the stars and not just at screens”. ‘Young as the Morning, Old as the Sea’ deserves a mention for its romantic imagery of his ideal existence.
A couple of lesser known songs fall into the forward-looking category of “everything is going to be alright”. Rather than drowning us in positivity (not that he is in any danger of that), Passenger takes a balanced position of finding the light within the darkness. ‘Rosie’ was incidentally written for his cat during a storm, but is generally a lovely song about riding out the storms life throws at you. “For the world is cruel and it’s violent and strange / but there is beauty too, if you look the right way”. Likewise in ‘Venice Canals’ he confronts the seeming hopelessness of the singee’s situation, “don’t get me wrong, this ain’t no happy song / and there’s nothing much to hold onto for now”, before pointing out how the sky is blue elsewhere in the world, and “the fish are swimming in the Venice canals”.
All these songs point to the beauty of the world around us, and in seeing things as they are. ‘Simple Song’ is nothing more than offering a simple song, acknowledging that it won’t “stop the Earth from shaking” or “your heart from breaking”. ‘Coins in a Fountain’ paints the argument with rich metaphors of how love will always conquer hate, “fear is dark, but my love is a lantern / shining up like coins in a fountain”. Sometimes you have to stop and appreciate how absolutely beautiful the simple things are around you, like walking through ‘London in the Spring’ and realising that everything is pretty perfect as it is.
And there are plenty more fantastic songs to check out, but this post is already far longer than intended. Mike often jokes that all his songs are “bloody miserable”, but I think digging into the songs you can unearth a full spectrum of human experience. I think his work points to a profound truth that life is neither wholly euphoric nor wholly miserable, but instead it’s a little bit of everything.