With “Drift Back” Phillip Phillips Goes Back to His Roots

There is an unshakable, heartbreaking sadness permeating Phillip Phillips’ most recent album, Drift Back. Released June 9, this is Phillips’ fourth album and his first in 5 years. 

It’s difficult to believe that half a decade separates Collateral (2018) and this album, but to listen to Drift Back is to understand the passing of time and the changes — and sometimes sorrow— it leaves behind. 

It’s a natural process: growing up, facing the challenges that life brings, our youthful innocence and optimism tested by reality and disillusionment. In Drift Back, Phillip does that mainly through the lens of love, exploring what early love, mature love, and love that is ending look like, but also, the resilience of love and what fighting for it demands from us. 

The album opens with the previously released “Dancing With Your Shadows,” an 80s-infused pop-rock song that explores dark subject matter over an addictive uptempo beat. In numerous interviews and posts he shared at the time the song came out, Phillip explained that the song was dedicated to his wife Hannah B. Phillips. The song speaks about the frustration one feels at being unable to help a loved one going through a difficult time. In the case of Phillip, this was his inability to help Hannah with recurrent health issues.

It’s an impeccable introduction to the sound of the album: musically restrained and efficient; warm but sharply recorded and produced. This is how much of the album can be described. Whereas in all his previous albums Phillip had given ample space to experimentation (songs like “Thicket” in Beyond the Light or “Sand Castles” or “I Dare You” in Collateral), in Drift Back he streamlines his songwriting to the essential, focusing of the lyrics and the best way to deliver them unencumbered.

That is one surprising aspect of Drift Back. Another is the revelation, which Phillip made recently during a radio show, that this is an independently released album. 

Phillip released his first three albums with Interscope Records under 19 Recordings. The road has been less than smooth for Phillip in the last 10 years and his relationship with the music industry and his label has been complicated. Throughout it all, a few things have been clear: Phillip’s absolute discretion, his unwavering artistic integrity, and his incredible grit, courage, and determination. 

Drift Back seems to capture thematically and musically some of these same characteristics, especially in how, despite the valleys and shadows of the relationships he describes in many of the songs, the ultimate message is of fighting for love until the last breath. 

It’s the vivid fight of “Over,” where one person pleads with the other ‘don’t say is over’ or the devastating lyrics of “Love Come Back To Me,” where he seems to speak directly at Love and ask it ‘Love, you don’t come around, are you missing?’ or the starkly painful line, ‘I wanna be back there. Can we get back there. Cause I won’t let this be the way it ends’  in “Calm Before the Storm.”

If the sadness is at times heavy and dark, the sound of the album is unmistakable Phillip: crisp and warm, comforting and familiar. Phillip’s signature acoustic guitar riffs are enhanced by discreet electric guitars, synths, driving drums, and on one occasion, in the closer “So Will I,” a soulful saxophone. Unlike Phillip’s previous albums, where the experimental songwriting and arrangement seemed to be more on the forefront, musically, Drift Back is more subtle. Headphones are these songs’ best friend. 

Another signature sound that is very present in the album is the cello, recorded by longtime friend and collaborator Dave Eggar, who has been working with Phillip since his debut. And it’s Eggar’s contribution that moves some of the songs into the more cinematic or narrative songwriting style that Phillip has displayed in the past. The best example of this is the magnificent “Calm Before the Storm,” (co-written by Phillip and Quinn Lewis) where Eggar’s cello is the foundation for the literal musical storm we hear in the chorus of the song and where even Phillip’s voice seems to come through us through the echo of stormy winds. 

Drift Back was produced by Todd Clark and Tim Bruns, two veteran songwriters Phillip has a long history with. Todd Clark has worked with Phillip since his debut album, helping co-write numerous songs over the last eleven years (“Gone Gone Gone,” “Raging Fire,” and “Fly” among many others). For his part, Tim Bruns co-wrote one of Phillip’s most personal songs, “Dance With Me,” which served as Phillip and Hannah’s wedding song in 2015.  

While each song deserves a special mention, “Strangers,” Phillip’s first official collaboration as part of his own album, shines musically and lyrically.  With its bright country flavour, haunting melody, and new collaborator Caitlyn Smith’s superb vocals, this song is a wonderful departure for Phillip in this new phase of musical exploration. Drift Back was recorded entirely in Nashville, a city that has increasingly played a role in Phillip’s musical direction in the last several years. This song seems to perfectly encompass that modern country-pop Nashville sound. 

After so much heartbreak, the album ends in a bright and hopeful tone with “So Will I,” a brilliant pop-rock song about unconditional love. The song captures the spirit of a declaration shouted out loud from the rooftops; it’s the renewal of a commitment to live fiercely and to overcome doubt and darkness by truly sharing our life with one another. It’s my favourite song in the album, the kind you can imagine singing out loud, arms raised in unison with thousands of others during a show. Perhaps it’s because I personally have experienced the lowest and darkest sides of sadness and depression that this song resonates so strongly for me. It tells me it is worth fighting for love and life. 

In a recent interview, Phillip explained that this is a fully indie record and that as such, he had complete artistic control of the music, the songs selected as singles (he didn’t fully say it but implied it), and even the creation of the cover art of the album. This is an extraordinary achievement by Phillip, a musician whose career has teetered uneasily between a desire for artistic integrity and the demands of a cynical music industry from the very start. His origin story, being the winner of the most mainstream and popular music show in America, was the start of that uneasiness.

Despite it all, Phillip navigated this divide beautifully in all his previous albums. Now with Drift Back, he is announcing a new chapter, one where he gracefully and maturely “drifts back” to his origins as a songwriter and guitar player whose love of music drove him to pursue his wildest dreams and take huge risks while doing it. 

“You cut like colours in the half-light” Phillip sings in “Before I Loved You.” With Drift Back, Phillip’s voice cuts like colours through the noise to deliver an album tempered by experience, love, and life.


Phillip Phillips Releases Video for New Song Dancing With Your Shadows

Phillip Phillips’ new video for “Dancing With Your Shadows” dropped yesterday, March 1. “Dancing With Your Shadows” was released on February 10. It’s a moody, darker entry to Phillip’s usually more colourful video catalog. 

Since his debut in 2012, Phillip Phillip has experimented freely with his songwriting, most clearly in his second album Behind the Light (2014), where he explored the many ways in which a song can be shaped. Collateral (2018), while still a rich, multi-genre album, pointed in the direction his music has been taking in more recent years, which is leaning into more to-the-point songs that deliver their message efficiently. Continue Reading →

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 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!