Sometimes, the things we love the most are the hardest to unpack. These are things that have become so fundamental in our mind, that it’s difficult to break them apart to understand what is it that we love about them, and why they mean so much to us. “Man On The Moon,” our pick for number one song on our list of Phillip Phillips’ most significant and important songs so far, has become that fundamental piece in his catalogue that for us, sums up his style. Indeed, musically rich and ambitious, deeply idiosyncratic, and full of attitude and confidence, “Man On The Moon” is the quintessential Phillip Phillips song, one that, while feeling like a classic, has also been able to absorb the different moods and improvisations that have shaped it live over the years. And while choosing the songs on this list has been very hard, deciding our number one was not: “Man On The Moon” was always our number one.
To understand the context from which this song came to us, picture this: Phillip Phillips, a young, talented musician from a small town in Georgia signs up for a TV singing competition. He makes it through the auditions and then each week must perform cover songs from a small selection of artists, sign in group numbers, and appeal to the largest number of viewers in the chance to win their votes. Nobody but the contestants in this competition can know how difficult that must be, a million forces pulling the young singers in every direction imaginable. But Phillip consistently finds songs that fit his voice, challenge his guitar playing, and reveal, as much as it’s possible in the context of the show, his personal musical preferences and inclinations. Still, there’s no way for viewers to know at this point that hiding in Phillip’s back pocket, waiting for him at home, are already a number of songs he wrote before going to the show.
When Phillip wins the competition, his first single “Home,” an extraordinary, touching, and relevant song, becomes ubiquitous: from radio stations, to movie trailers, to the Olympic Games on TV, the song is everywhere. But with nine out the twelve songs written or co-written by Phillip, the anticipation from fans and the music industry for Phillip’s debut album The World from the Side of the Moon is huge; could the album match the success of “Home”? What about the songs written by Phillip, what would they sound like? At the stroke of midnight, when fans were finally able to listen to the album, the first notes that we heard were not from “Home” but from “Man On The Moon,” a song penned solely by Phillip and which seemed to announce, boldly, that musically this is who he was. Hearing those first few notes was, and still is, one of the most special and unforgettable moments we’ve had as fans of his music.
Other than stating that it is one of the first songs he ever wrote and that he wrote it “about somebody I didn’t like,” Phillip has talked very little about the origin of this song or its meaning. The lyrics, though quite descriptive and vivid, remain deeply enigmatic, talking about somebody trying to find their bearings, and then later about being truthful and authentic, a theme that will be recurrent throughout all of Phillip’s three albums: “So tell me this one thing, listen to me close | You steal from me but you call it your own | You liar. You thief| Go make your stand on your own two feet” (what lyrics!).
Warm and dynamic, the song is full of musical moments echoing the themes in the lyrics: from Phillip’s bluegrassy guitar in the intro, to his vocals–delivered in a flow closer to rap or hip hop–to Shawn Pelton’s syncopated drums underscoring this delivery, to the evocative strings in the bridge as if we are truly “flying in the sea with no gravity to pull me down” or better, floating through space making our way to the moon.
And as rich and satisfying as the recorded version is, the song has taken on another dimension when performed live, in particular due to its extended outro which, introduced by another of Phillip’s intricate riffs, grows into a Pink Floyd-esque instrumental breakdown, with a signature guitar solo backed by a “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” heavenly organ (first performed by Errol Cooney and Bobby Sparks), and an exhilarating– almost-metal–head-banging ending that never fails to take the show to the next level.
But for all it represents within Phillip’s catalogue, “Man On The Moon” is also just an imaginative, fun song, a work of youthful confidence and attitude, audacious in its lyrics and genre-blending groove, a song that signaled where Phillip was coming from, and the direction where he was, fearlessly, moving to.
Take a look at some other performance of “Man on the Moon” over the years, below!
And if you are missing any of Phillip Phillip’s three albums, visit his official site to listen/purchase.
Finally, follow the link to read about our previous top seven picks!
Featured illustration by Pâmella Rolim.