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.