Celebrating Behind The Light: Song of the Week 8 – Lead On

If there is something that Phillip Phillips has demonstrated he can do extremely well–both on his albums and his live shows–is that he can play a mean, funky guitar riff. Another one is his ability to craft incredibly unique and distinctly sounding songs both as a solo writer and as a co-writer. “Lead On” is an example of both, an infectious, delicious funky song by Phillip and regular collaborators Todd Clark and Derek Fuhrmann. Full of lyrics you can’t help but sing along to, “Lead On” has become a set list regular during Phillip’s live performances, where it continues to evolve into one of the best and funkiest jams of the show.

Musically, “Lead On” has a great organic feel, with a driving rock beat that creates a sense of urgency from the start. Beautiful strings cruise above, contrasting with the beat but also accentuating it and counterpointing it later on. It’s vibrant, rich and very inviting.

"Lead On" Fan Artwork by @KelseyButler

Lyrically, “Lead On” is equally rich, with lyrics that fall effortlessly into the beat and string along seamlessly between verses and chorus. The lyrics are very visual too, creating evocative images with only a few words (“You are the blur in my eye as I wake up through the night” being one of my favourites lines). Phillip’s vocals, urgent and yearning, give an additional edge to the song, because despite the funky and rocking feel of the music, “Lead On” is not really a light song.

The lyrics describe a relationship, a slightly dependent one, even a little toxic, but one he’s not ready or willing to quit just yet. The feeling is of wanting to let go and lose himself in it, despite what this may cost him (“I can’t quit you, and I’m fine with being used”), even if it means his sanity and control (“You are the rarest drug, with every word I breathe, I feel the way you’ve changed me”). Although he yearns for release, he continues to plead to be taken along, maybe because this is actually the only way he can be free. The lyrics are probably about love, but songs, of course, can have multiple meanings, and Phillip, as we know, is never quite transparent with his words, finding ways to convey probably very personal feelings through images and stories that resonate with many while not necessarily revealing his most intimate world.

"Lead On" Fan Artwork by @slypinkspy

A fun but intriguing song, the sense of urgency on “Lead On” actually grows as the song moves along, culminating with that intense crescendo that literally leaves us “hanging on to every word.” In the end too, we realize that nothing has changed, as passion–like an addiction–beckons again into the night, surely stronger and more delicious, in this case, that any possible pain or doubt.

Take a look at some great fan artwork inspired by “Lead On” submitted as part of Phillip’s lyrics contest last year. And check out a couple of amazing live performances of “Lead on” below!

"Lead On"  Fan Artwork by Rachel Surridge "Lead On" Fan Artwork by  Megan Merren "Lead On" Fan Artwork by Lisa Mott "Lead On" Fan Artwork by  @TiffyD_897 "Lead On" Fan Artwork by @AllyxGoodman

Every week until May 19 we are writing about one song on Behind the Light. Check out our previous “Songs of the Week“. And if you haven’t yet done so, click here to buy Behind the Light!

Celebrating Behind the Light: Song of the Week 7 – Alive Again

“I see myself again, behind the light I flicker” sings Phillip Phillips on the opening lines of “Alive Again,” a song than encompasses in itself the many shades of light and darkness we find on Behind the Light. Like most of the songs on the album, “Alive Again” introduces a whole distinct sound, musical approach and production, with no other song on Behind the Light sounding quite the same. It’s a song of incredible intrinsic power and emotion, delivered and felt in an almost physical way.

The song was written by Phillip and singer-songwriter David Ryan Harris, who previously collaborated with Phillip on “Tell Me a Story,” one of the most beloved songs from The World from the Side of The Moon. “Alive Again” shares something with that song, which is a certain romantic, vulnerable quality in its vision of the world. This is thanks not only to the lyrics, but also to what is perhaps the most beautiful and haunting chord progression on the album, a bittersweet melody that continually moves between a major and a minor key, and which remains unresolved until almost the very end.

Phillip and David Ryan Harris

The lyrics on the verses are very delicate, very poetic. Like a dream, hope shimmers, flickers, not yet within reach, immaterial. Echoing the music, which juxtaposes warm and rich acoustic guitars with gorgeous electric effects, the images of the lyrics also shift between doubt and certainty, burning desire mingled with a lingering, weakening past. It evokes the idea of the sublime, of being caught between two seemingly contradictory emotions, of seeing the beauty that is contained within the suffering, the sweet moment when someone who has been very ill is about to begin walking again.

And then the chorus, when it comes, is big, the heavy synths piercing through the song like sunlight shining through heavy clouds. The feeling is that of having survived through deep darkness and pain, for you can’t feel alive again without something inside you having died. And what we feel–at least what I feel–through those forever shifting chords, is the dent, the indelible marks forever left by pain in the heart. It will heal, it has healed, but the scar remains, together with the memories.

It’s a fact that without darkness there would be no light, without death, no life. “Alive Again” acknowledges these truths. It also reminds us of another one: that when we have been in complete darkness and we finally manage to come out, the sun can blinding with its light. And so is life, sweeter and more precious when we are able to feel again what it truly means to be alive.

Check out a beautiful live version of “Alive Again” below! And click here to Buy Behind the Light!

Each week until May 19 we are writing about one song on Phillip Phillips’ second album Behind the Light. Check out our previous songs of the week!
Photo credit: David Ryan Harris.

Celebrating Behind The Light: Song of the Week 6 – Fly

In the many interviews that appeared in the weeks leading to the release of Behind the Light, Phillip Phillips consistently used two words to describe the sound that the album would have: dark and heavy. The words were music to the ears of many, but not a surprise to anybody who had attended a Phillip Phillips show in the previous two years. Released almost exactly a year ago in April 2014, “Fly” definitely exemplified that new dark and heavy sound, but it also succeeded in capturing something more: the joy and exhilaration of Phillip Phillips’ live shows.

The song’s cover art, reminiscent of 1970’s classic rock album covers, was designed by artist Rob Carmichael, and hinted at the unique and special status that this song would have in the new album. It was abstract and mysterious, a complete departure from any other Behind the Light or Phillip Phillips image released up to that point.

Fly single art cover by Rob Carmichael

“Fly,” similar to “Thicket” and even the earlier “Man on the Moon,” is built around another one of Phillip’s great guitar riffs, one that highlights again a very strong rhythm under the melody and showcases Phillip’s incredibly dexterous playing. Co-written by Phillip and Todd Clark, a second key element of “Fly” is the contribution of pedal steel guitarist Robert Randolph, of the Robert Randolph and the Family Band. An electrifying and highly spiritual player, Randolph infuses the song with an organic, unpredictable feel that more than pays off by the end of the song.

The final major element of the song are the drums, played by Jason “JT” Thomas, Phillip’s current drummer and contributor to most of the drums on Behind the Light. Mr. Thomas, a drummer whose background is in gospel and jazz, lends a deep, deliciously solid groove to the song and transforms “Fly” into much more than a straight forward rock song. His pace, slow and controlled throughout the song, only reveals what is to come through his brilliant use of the snare and the bass drum, on which he increasingly riffs and builds on as “Fly” moves along.

In typical Phillip form, the lyrics are obscure, but also sparse and introspective. Still, hidden within those words is a world of meaning:

“When the day is done, the weight is on my mind
How should I give up, how should I survive
Leaning to the side of the busy street
Looking down
These people never notice me
Am I the only one who thinks it’s hard to breathe”

Very quickly we are confronted with somebody who is struggling, perhaps with his own identity, and also yearning for release. The choice of words is important, as they all seem to represent the opposite of “flying” as he speaks of “weight on my mind” and of it being “hard to breathe.” And as we continue looking through the lyrics, they all seem to circle around this feeling of being lost or trapped (Searching through a maze only to find, another wall to break, another wall to climb), and of finding it hard to express the truth, “what’s on my mind,” and more importantly, “what’s not inside.”

Phillip Phillips performing Fly with Robert Randolph at the Ryman Theatre

Controlled feelings and controlled music and drums. Barely, and not for long.This is because after a short break after the final chorus, the song dissolves into an spectacular pedal steel guitar solo by Robert Randolph, the absolute, most obvious and glorious highlight of the song. The solo, supported magnificently by the rest of the band (in particular the drums), simply takes over the last third of the song and represents the literal release to the oppressive feeling alluded to in the lyrics, the moment when Phillip–and us as listeners–literally and completely take flight.

We realize then, during that solo, that Phillip doesn’t really need to say “what’s on his mind,” that the music actually has taken over to say what the words can’t or aren’t allowed to say. And what the music says in “Fly” is as powerful as any words can be, expressing an extreme joy, and almost spiritual release–even perhaps the delirious feeling that extraordinary music-making must bring to those making the music and that it certainly brings to us as listeners. And Robert Randolph and his pedal steel guitar, an instrument referred to as “the sacred steel” in the gospel musical tradition, more than anybody personifies this concept of making music that seeks unto itself to elevate the soul.

Phillip and Robert Randolph at the Ryman Theatre

There is no doubt in my mind that this is at least part of what Phillip’s music and live shows are also about, which is sharing the music but also celebrating it for all its possibilities and power, and what it can do to all of us. And “Fly,” most of any song on Behind the Light, does this; it speaks when words can’t, it shows rather than tells. It’s joy, freedom, exhilaration–integrity–made music. If you want proof, just listen to the song, reach your hands to the sky and fly.

Take a look at some rocking videos of “Fly” below! And if you haven’t yet done so, click here to buy Behind the Light!

Concert photos by Erika H and Elvan M.

Celebrating Behind The Light – Song of the Week 5: FACE

Quietly hidden between the hopeful “Unpack Your Heart” and the uplifting “Midnight Sun,” is “Face,” our Song of the Week 5. Sneaked in between those two powerful songs, “Face” perfectly exemplifies the diversity of sound and emotion that we find in Behind the Light. As unique as “Thicket” in terms of concept and execution, “Face” is in many ways its opposite, showing a musical and emotional restraint that really contrasts with the rest of the album.

Based on a deep groove and melody reminiscent of gypsy jazz, the song has a cool, sexy feel that serves to hide–perhaps intentionally–the heartbreak we find within the lyrics. Another one of Phillip’s solo writing credits on Behind the Light, “Face” also captures the deep musical connection between the members of Phillip’s acoustic trio, made up of Phillip, guitarist Errol Cooney and cellist Dave Eggar. Although not exactly a trio on “Face” (thanks to the excellent addition of Chuck Palmer on percussion), the song captures the trio sound by highlighting the masterful contribution of each player without adornments or major production. It’s probably no coincidence that both Dave Eggar and Errol Cooney have called “Face” one of the favourite songs they got to do on Behind the Light, Errol pointing to the song’s “minimal live arrangement” and Dave to the chance it gave him to explore “a jazz or gypsy type of use of the cello.”

The Trio: Phillip, Dave and Errol.

Both of these elements are indeed key elements of the song, and ones that help bring to the studio the pure sound, joyful creativity and musical camaraderie displayed by the trio during their live performances. Much like these performances, the song’s minimal arragement allows us to clearly hear the inner workings of the musical exchange–the conversation–between the trio without any other instrumentation or production coming between them, with Phillip and Errol laying down the rhythmic and melodic core of the song, the percussion further grounding the groove of the guitars and Dave gliding in and out freely, colouring inside and outside the lines with the cello.

Phillip Phillips and Errol Cooney in the studio.

Though the meaning of the song’s lyrics appears to be right on the surface, I don’t think it’s that simple, especially given the mysterious title of the song. They speak of a relationship that has not been equal, where one seems to have been more invested than the other. The lyrics could be directed at the other person but they could also be an internal conversation, a struggle between the mind and heart of somebody who is fighting to forget and move on. We can go back to the music again to give us hints and to illuminate us as we hear the percussion and the guitars maintain that in-the pocket groove but also Errol and Dave expanding over the melody and the theme more freely, romantically, almost seductively.

And later, when Phillip sings the same lyrics repeatedly over the bridge (“When you find your way back in darling, I won’t give my heart again”) it’s almost more like a self-promise than a warning to the other, as if he’s gathering the strength to say those words out loud, to actually “walk out the door.” In the end, maybe “Face” speaks of a heartbreak that has become tinted with coolness and pride, the kind that needs to show a stoic face to hide a broken, trampled-on heart.

Behind the Light: the album tracks

Check out Phillip and band playing a cool, full band rendition of “Face” below. And, if you haven’t yet done so, click here to buy Behind the Light!
All photos by Phillip Phillips.

Celebrating Behind the Light: Song of the Week 4 – Unpack Your Heart

Among all the light and darkness that we find in Behind the Light, “Unpack Your Heart,” the second single from the album, is one of the rare ones that’s almost all light.

Where confusion, heartbreak and betrayal seem to be the dominant emotions in “Thicket,” “Unpack You Heart” speaks of a love that’s unconditional, accepting and profound. Thematically, it could work as an extension of “Raging Fire,” and musically, it’s closer to that sound as well.

Co-written by Phillip, Derek Fuhrmann, Todd Clark & Greg Wattenberg, “Unpack Your Heart” shines because of its lyrics, but also because of its production, one of the most beautiful on the whole album. Much gentler than “Raging Fire,” it starts sweetly with Phillip’s rich acoustic guitar and intimate vocals. When they come in, the drums are very crisp, but incredibly warm, as are the cello, bass, and rest of the accompaniment. It’s the equivalent to a clear morning light, and if we listen to the lyrics, they find their equivalent in the music too:

“Meet me where the sunlight ends
Meet me where the truth never bends,”
Phillip pleads warmly,

“Bring all that you’re scared to defend
Lay it down when you walk through my door
Throw all of it out on the floor
Your sorrow, your beauty, your war,
I want it all, I want it all”

The lyrics speak clearly of acceptance, of letting go of the fear of being yourself, and the magic that happens when you do. The official video, full of playful, quirky animation, really captures this idea, the lightness of a free, “unpacked” heart. Further, the song speaks of authenticity, of acknowledging our mistakes, “madness” and ideals, not only in front of ourselves but in front of those who love us–it’s certainly a gift that goes both ways.

A third notion is that in love sometimes is easier to give than to take. But unconditional love means that we must believe—gracefully accept—that somebody may love us the same way we do: in spite of all our flaws, secrets and “wars.” It’s an all-encompassing love, between lovers perhaps (as in love and in passion one can be “all-consuming”) but one that goes beyond that; maybe that’s why these lyrics have been given a multitude of meanings, from the romantic to the psychological, to the spiritual. It’s a sweet song, an invitation, an extended hand leading into the light.

Watch some cool performances of “Unpack Your Heart” below!
And if you haven’t yet, click here to buy Behind the Light!

Celebrating Behind The Light: Song of the Week 3 – Thicket

Perhaps no other song on Phillip Phillips’ second album Behind the Light is as unique and revealing of his inclinations a song writer as “Thicket,” our Song of the week 3. Buried deep into Behind the Light, “Thicket” is a complex, cinematic creation that feels like a world unto itself; a jewel of a song that became a fan favourite almost immediately after the album release.

Built around an intricate circular guitar riff Phillip had been playing as practice for months, “Thicket” is very much a signature Phillip Phillips song, one that favors rhythmic complexity, haunting melodies and deep and enigmatic lyrics. This is also one of the songs on the album where he has a solo writing credit.

The guitar riff is actually played first by the cello, which opens the song with a rapid, dizzying succession of notes. Drums come in but at half time, creating an immediate tension between the rapid riff and the more menacing, slower tempo of the rest of the strings and the drums.

As with most of the songs on Behind the Light, “Thicket” features a gorgeous string arrangement by Dave Eggar and Chuck Palmer, Eggar playing the cello in it as well. And his contribution here is very deep, helping Phillip create the haunting, mysterious feeling that defines the song.

The lyrics are in the form of a story, a narrative painted in vivid images that look back in regret to a lost love, at what could have been. Brilliantly, the lyrics mirror the music and the music mirrors the lyrics, as the unresolved, circular melody comes back “around and round” during each verse.

Very “Phillips” also, is the way the lyrics are composed and sung, sometimes running longer than they should within a beat, turned then by Phillip into syncopated notes that keep us guessing and add one more layer of rhythmic tension and uncertainty. It’s dense and intricate, like a thicket indeed. As for the lyrics, many times I feel like trying to understand them is like trying to find shapes in the clouds, but Phillip has indicated in interviews that this song may be about how we sometimes are so focused on looking at the details, that we are blinded and fail to see the whole picture.

And in the end this is how “Thicket” feels, like a puzzle we’ve been building and we finally fit the last piece and the entire picture becomes clear. The revelation here seems disturbing, but also liberating and joyous and we hear it as all sections of the music, including Phillip’s vocals, go into an exhilarating crescendo, finally finding each other on the same tempo and hitting the same beat. It is as if the bird has finally flown out, and we have followed it, and find our way out too…

Check out some rocking videos of “Thicket” below. And take a look at some of the beautiful “Thicket” artwork submitted by fans for Phillip’s lyrics artwork contest last year.

Buy Behind The Light.

Follow our Song of the Week series:
Song of the Week 1
Song of the Week 2

"Thicket" Fan Artwork by Sylvia "Thicket" Fan Artwork by Danni Allingham "Thicket" Fan Artwork by Tiffany "Thicket" Fan Artwork by Doreen "Thicket" Fan Artwork by Bonnie "Thicket" Fan Artwork by Megan "Thicket" Fan Artwork by Elita "Thicket" Fan Artwork by Becca "Thicket" Fan Artwork by Erika "Thicket" Fan Artwork by Erin "Thicket" Fan Artwork by Danielle "Thicket" Fan Artwork by Vickie "Thicket" Fan Artwork by @alwaysmeart