ALBUM REVIEW ~ Phillip Phillips’ “Behind the Light”

 

How many ways can a musician make a unique name for his/herself in the music industry? The exact answer is not above debate by any means, but for American Idol winners, the number of possibilities goes substantially down due to the mold that the show makes the winner into.

Many have distanced themselves from the show and have moved up from the “grandfathered” status of the music industry by being one of the best in their genre. Kelly Clarkson, winner of season one, has dominated the pop industry and has taken a stake out of it for many years, as has Carrie Underwood to a larger degree in the country music industry. Underwood’s net worth rose above $70 million in 2013, making her one of the richest persons in the industry. Those two musicians have undeniably made their name and music relevant by dominating within their respective genre.

Though, can a person make music in modern society that doesn’t fit the bill of any normal genre and be successful? That’s what season eleven winner Phillip Phillips might look to accomplish in his new LP “Behind the Light”, which was released Monday, May 19th. Featuring a plethora of musical notions and high reaching precedents within the album, each track showcases what may be truly something musically, lyrically, and meaningfully unique from the often-stale music industry.

 

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Cover Art ~ “Behind The Light”

SEARCHLIGHTThis album opener creates an issue to be resolved even before Phillip Phillips opens his mouth. The first struck note has a distinctive, unresolved tone that sets up for a introspective track. With a rather heavy, folk-y beat and a straightforward 4 beats per measure, Phillips puts his bold foot forward musically, and follows the same notion lyrically.

Pleading for a person that has left him to return again, Phillips explains how he is lost and alone (“Lost again / In this night / The sun just leads me into shadows”) and that this person is the only thing that can “bring him back to life”.  Like a baseball pitcher, Phillips lunges toward his destination with his first motion and leaves intrigue as to how the momentum will be resolved throughout the rest of the album.

          What’s left unsaid, say it loud / There’s a fire in me / That’s still burning
RAGING FIREEven though it is the lead single, “Raging Fire” nestles in comfortably with the musical storyline started by “Searchlight”. Apparently, Phillips finds and reunites with the person described in “Searchlight”, as he reiterates that there is the littlest spark inside of him (“There’s a fire in me / That’s still burning”) and boldly proclaims directly to the recipient that, with this person’s help, it has the potential to become something as uncontrollable and magical as a “raging fire”. This message is convincingly conveyed and further materialized by means of a full orchestra blasting a heavy triplet-grouped tune in support of Phillips’ vocal. Though, the best work in “Raging Fire” may be hidden in the soft sections of the tune, where subtle yet evident and strategic placement of guitars, percussion, and synthesized sound effects underline the haunting picture of the little spark that remains evident after “Searchlight”. At the percussion-driven final chorus, Phillips begins the process of opening the door of his heart that would reveal the spark inside of him.
You know how to give and how to take / You see every hope I locked away / 
So pull me close and surrender to my heart
TRIGGERBacking away substantially from the taste left from “Raging Fire”, “Trigger” is plagued be a solemn guitar riff with a synthesizer playing softly overhead, creating the mental picture of a hypothetical wasteland. “But you stopped me and said / Please just leave me be / I feel as though no one knows what goes on inside of me’“. Told through the perspective of Phillips, this song delves into the mental warfare of a person close to him. Feeling the need to intervene after solemnly realizing that he might be the only one that can prevent this person from “pulling the trigger” and shutting out the world completely, Phillips tries as best he can to reach out to his friend. When this person ends up shutting him out (“Please just leave me be. / I feel as though no one knows what goes on inside of me“), Phillips wonders if he, himself was the one that inadvertently “pulled the trigger” and executed this person’s breakdown.
Inside your hand it holds the question to it all / I start to pull the trigger, I start to pull the trigger
LEAD ONUnusually for Phillips, “Lead On” begins with a pop-like piano beat to begin the track. Some critics argue that he strays away from his roots with this oddity, as he is known for his folky-er mantra. Though, to the contrary, Phillips may have planned for that musical twist to be in his back pocket from the beginning. In the tune, Phillips talks to a girl that he is romantically attached to and is hypnotized by her elegant swagger. It seems to Phillips as though the closer he gets to her, the more she changes him, which haunts and scares him. He then rejects the notions from his conscience that he is going down a dark, winding path to selling his soul and willingly encourages the girl to “lead on”, and reassures her that “he’ll follow”. The climatic moment in “Lead On” is when Phillips makes the ultimate decision to follow his love interest (2:44 in the track) backed up by a light, unresolved chord in the background: “I’ll follow you into the night / Let’s get lost until it’s light”.
And I’ll follow wherever you go / Right down that rabbit hole / Then everything gets dark / And I feel pulled apart
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Photo Credit ~ Columbian.com

ALIVE AGAINRight off the bat the listener is treated to the lyric from which the album title is derived (“I see myself again / Behind the light I flicker“). This humble beginning chugs forward en route to becoming a turning point on the record. Despite of the woes expressed just recently, Phillips’ attitude buds through the avenues of the music and lyrics because of a person that has genuinely “made him feel alive again”. This may just be the results of the experiment proposed in “Raging Fire”, as the spark within him monumentally buds within the track through the musical arrangement. A soaring, powerful anthem, Phillips “throws out what makes him thin” even though “it lingers” inside of him still. Consequently, the track has a majestic-yet-restrained, stereotypical feel through the unusually smooth vocal from Phillips and the musical arrangement that resembles a power-pop ballad. Though, the notion that anything plaguing hides deep inside of him seems to be rejected as light sounds and intrinsic musical features (charicteristic of Phillips’ arrangements) hang prettily overhead his vocals like a starry night, and a powerful orchestral accompaniment below straps onto Phillip’s back like a jet pack to blast him into an uncertain future.

            Throw out what makes me thin / But the harder I try, it lingers
OPEN YOUR EYES – “I see who you are but don’t believe / You show a side you claim to be”. In this intimate yet powerful tune, Phillips encourages someone to stop their introverted, worried ways, because they both have only a limited time to be themselves (“For the moments we have in this life they will end”). He sings with the message that conformation to an outside source will dilute a person’s true being and put a restraint on what they can do and how they will think. Unlike the previous songs in the track, Phillips’ voice far overpowers the orchestra’s backing, which is a reflection of the bold message in the song. The orchestra is subtly heard in a beautiful undertone that facilitates the potential mental picture of flowers blooming. In the context of the album, it would make sense in the context of the album if “Open Your Eyes” was really meant to be just a memo for Phillips himself.
             It’s not too late to let it show / Cause it’s all yours
FOOL FOR YOU – Opening up with a orchestral beat resembling a pop ballad worthy of being played in shopping malls, this stereotypical sound is underlined by the classic Phillip Phillips’ orchestration of acoustic guitar and heavy percussion. “Everyday I wake up and I’m twisted in a dream / In between who I am and the things I want to be”.  He seems to musically toil with the fact that maybe he is softer and more vulnerable to conformation than he might’ve thought before. The song talks about a letter that Phillips’ romantic interest left for him to read. With the flowery language and the pleading message of love in the note, Phillips has his head in the clouds lyrically (while reading the letter) and musically, as shown in the disappearing act that the base and percussion perform during the first and the second choruses along with Phillips compassionate and excited vocal. Whether the message has depth or not, it influences Phillips, and he is obviously inclined to consider his love’s offer to “just hold on”.
            Everyday I wake up and I’m twisted in a dream / In between who I am and the things I want to be 
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Photo Credit ~ PhillipPhillips.com

THICKET – Beginning with a haunting and suspenseful array of fast moving violin melodies and many other wide-ranging sound effects, “Thicket” may resemble a dark Muse record to the avid listener. Though, Phillips puts his stamp on the arrangement at times including immediately after the first chorus, when all the instruments cut out to lead immediately into a spine-tingling acoustic guitar riff. Like the music, the lyrics intensify the almost-angry façade of the tune. A love interest slammed the door on a relationship between her and Phillips, and, after “giving her everything”, Phillips is confused as to why his love interest didn’t open her heart up to him as he did for her (I grabbed for your hand but you took it back / Trying hard not to let feelings show). As a result of the break up, Phillips is hurt and rather angry. As he opened his heart up for his love interest to see, she closed up hers and fired emotional bullets at the unarmed target. Nothing in the relationship was real, Phillips feels (Our love was just a dream, just a dream / With all my heart I gave you everything, everything), because he never really knew who his love interest really was. In the end, Phillips rather rationalizes the situation and realizes that the relationship itself was the real “thicket” (I felt I was the one to help pull you through / And I know, I know it’s alright / I found a way out, I found a way out). I would’ve personally appreciated a grittier vocal, similar to the one from “Trigger”, from Phillips for this occasion, but the instrumental majesties might just cover this up enough for it not to break the integrity of the track.
Is that all that’s there through the thicket of the leaves? / Yes, yes now you see / The bird flying out why don’t you jump and see where he leads
FLYPhillips reveals his inner struggle with self-identity with the second single off of the record. Wait. Let me clarify – I use the word “reveal” as a blanket term. Phillips doesn’t pen his words of struggle to a song like participation in a self-help support group. Rather, he blasts his soul onto the track’s substance to create an array of compelling colors to represent a rather inspirational fight against himself. Phillips finds it difficult to express himself in his own way (“I feel it’s hard to say what’s on my mind”), and that struggle propels him to fight against the realization that fitting oneself into the mold of society dilutes any personal motivation or conviction (“You think your fight is over / it’s only so much closer”). Backed up by an overpowering and convicting rock-band style accompaniment (which greatly differs from the orchestra that dominates the rest of the record), Phillips delivers a transparent vocal that shows his personal conviction within the issue.
Two-thousand faces here but I don’t mind / Am I the only one with a reason behind?
UNPACK YOUR HEART – A vast contrast from “Fly”, “Unpack Your Heart” starts intimately to the tune of a single acoustic guitar playing a pleasant, soft riff. Phillips starts with an encouraging message of trust and reassurance to a new love interest. Coming off of the breakup described in “Thicket”, Phillips now has a new knowledge and wisdom concerning relationships. In this way, this message to “Bring your secrets / bring your scars” serves as fine print to his new interest. He knows that secrets and masks in a relationship will, one way or another, make their way to a forefront. So, consequently, this is a more calloused, fear-ridden message than a bystander might catch. The accompanying arrangement is one of bravery and ambition, laced with high-flying strings and punchy bass. The “ba-da-da’s” at the end by Phillips seem a little much, but contribute to the fearful aspect of the track fittingly.
Oh, I’m on your side / She’d your shadow and watch it rise
FACE – “I know it’s all there / Why won’t you open up and let me in”. In this swanky, Western sounding tune, Phillip pleads with a love interest, presumably the one from “Unpack Your Heart”, to search deeper for the things inside of her heart that would make her and Phillips the perfect match. The only problem is that Phillips is the only one that sees these things (“I found what you need / Come on and give me what I want, a taste of you and me”). In the process of searching and looking deep into her heart, Phillip accidently opens the door to his, and it breaks as it “falls onto the floor” (“Cause you saw my heart / And you saw how much it broke”). Once that happens, Phillips has the attitude of “fool me twice, shame on me”, “brushes his heart off” and “walks out the door”, which one could picture as a dusty saloon door from the old Wild West with the way Phillips organized the airy, twangy instrumental orchestration. He also showcases a softer, more vulnerable and fragile side of himself with his use of his rarely-heard falsetto in the chorus. One of my favorite tracks on the record, Phillips provides an accidently-intimate moment for the listener, who chillingly gets a look of the darker features “behind the light” of Phillip Phillips.
I‘ll take it out of your head / I’ll take it out of your thoughts / give you a reason to stay / Give you a reason to not
MIDNIGHT SUN – The clincher to “Behind The Light” starts of with the bang of a full orchestral sounding string section playing an upbeat, optimistic tune slightly resembling that of an Imagine Dragons record. A grandiloquent realization of his past experiences, Phillips realizes that his “window that he cannot clean” is a part of him that should not be changed but, rather, should be embraced. “Oh my friend / Look how time has changed / the cracks in our skin”. Phillips comes to the realization that light and joy have real depth that only come by variations of building blocks of many different colors. Some are dark, some are mystical, and some are bright and showcase-worthy, but all of them form Phillips into who he is. Even though Phillips strives to be unique and individual with his being, he realizes that moments and experiences in life help enhance who he is, and he shows that through the shifting transformation of his music in this record. He encourages someone to “chase the midnight sun”, and to go after and cling to the things in life which are unknown and scary.
Look how time has changed / the cracks in our skin
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Photo Credit ~ Billboard.com

Some critical reviews of this album cite Phillips’ first LP (“The World from the Side of the Moon”) and “Behind the Light” and poke at the obvious differences of style and execution between the two projects. Ignorantly, they point to some Phillips quotes and past acts to make the latter album out to be a disappointment. Evidently, these people did not regard the lyrics and the messages of the record upon writing their reviews. It is not a perfect record — It usually makes me very weary to see so many power-ballad (per say) dominated songs dilute an album’s overhanging message and meaning. Though, Phillips manages this potential problem as beautifully as he can, making all the songs sound completely unique and putting an appropriate purpose to each sound made, from little to loud. Even though I would love one more intimate track on the record like the ones experienced on “World from the Side of the Moon”, “Behind the Light” proves to be a real statement and step forward for Phillips, who boldly proves that you don’t have to reside within the confines of a certain genre to express yourself through music. Maybe that is what’s ultimately “behind the light”.
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The ‘Deluxe Version’ of the album comes with three additional songs: the heartfelt “My Boy”, edgy “Don’t Trust Me”, and honest “Armless Crawler”.

Favorite Track(s) – Trigger, Unpack Your Heart, Face
Least Favorite Track – Fool For You (a VERY hard choice!)
One Word Description – Blossoming

Final Album Grade ~ A- 
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Excellent Musicianship, musical variety and innovation, fantastic lyrical expression, and thought-provoking storytelling through the entire record blast “Behind The Light” up to an A, but a few questionably delivered vocals and just a little imbalance on the powerful instrumental orchestrations flaw it just a little for a high A- grade.
About Andrew Standley

I was born in Columbus, Ohio, and attend Delaware Christian School, traveling into Delaware through the portal named Route 42 from my home in Plain City. I find pleasure in attempting to delve into the realms of thought where few have gone before. Though I'm only a teenager so my words may be shallow, I like to believe that you don't need a Ph.D. to search for truth and perhaps a different, fresh, perspective.

Comments

  1. Norma Cottrell says:

    Very good, in-depth review, much appreciated. It’s good to read a review where you feel the reviewer has actually listened seriously to music, lyrics, and progression. Thank you

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