The World From the Side of the Moon
Every time I hear the song "Home," I think, Man, I love this new Mumford & Sons tune. And then I remember, Oh, wait, that's not Marcus Mumford. No, it's actually Phillip Phillips, the 22-year-old guitar-slinging, folk-singing, 2012 American Idol champ.
The release of Phillips' debut album, The World From the Side of the Moon, is likely to dispel that notion and simultaneously stoke another impossible-to-avoid comparison. Listening to this acoustically oriented set, one that's supplemented with saxophone and mandolin, Phillips' southern-inflected voice invariably brings to mind another popular alt-folk-rock singer: Dave Matthews.
Like Matthews, Phillips often indulges his moody side. He's melancholy, ambivalent at times and opaque quite often. Some indulgent sensuality darkens the proceedings as well. But shining through the gray like the sun through a partly cloudy sky is Phillips' generally optimistic perspective on life—which is exactly why his hit "Home" got so much traction at the 2012 Olympics.
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Phillips' American Idol coronation song, " Home," counsels courage amid soul-sapping fear: "Don't pay no mind to the demons/They fill you with fear/The trouble, it might drag you down/If you get lost, you can always be found/Just know you're not alone." On "Gone, Gone, Gone," a faithful man who's been left behind pledges to be there if his ex needs him in the future: "Baby, I'm not movin' on/I'll love you long after you're gone/ … When you fall like a statue, I'm gonna be there to catch you/ … And if your well is empty, not a thing will prevent me/Tell me what you need, what do you need." "Can't Go Wrong" also mentions the importance of facing our fears.
The Christian Post characterizes Phillips as being "soft spoken about his Christian faith," and several low-key spiritual references bear witness to that. "Hold On" finds Phillips singing, "So all I can do is be the man that the Lord brought me to today." That song also talks of pressing on in spite of future uncertainty ("Life is too short to stop and stare at the blank page that tells your way") and says that love (perhaps God's love?) guides our way ("Hold on to your life by love and/Then you'll find what's in and out of line"). Meanwhile, "A Fool's Dance" references a disorienting breakup ("Who am I, who are you, what are we anymore?/Just a darkness in my life or like a hole in the floor") that prompts Phillips to cast his cares upon God ("Won't you take it all away, and I'll take mine to the Lord").
Within that context, lines on "Tell Me a Story" could be heard as references to God as well: "'Cause you are the sun that leads me to the light/Hope is just a ray of what everyone should see." That song also majors in optimism amidst trepidation ("Scared of what's behind you/Scared of what's in front/Live with what you have now and make the best of what's to come") and suggests that actions, not words, are the measure of a person's integrity ("We aren't what we say/We are what we do").
Amid an ambiguous relationship (it's unclear whether it's a friendship or a romance), Phillips' offers this straightforward advice on "Man on the Moon": "You can find yourself if you decide to finally start/So don't let your life start to slowly waste away." "Where We Came From" longs to tear down the barriers separating an estranged couple. "So Easy" is a sweet love song about the joy of falling in love.
Lyrics on "Get Up Get Down" reference caving in to sin, and I'm not certain whether Phillips is glorifying that decision or evoking it as a cautionary tale. "Yesterday was our time to turn back again," he sings. "Instead we went through the fire to get lost in sin/Burn, baby, burn." After that he says, "Let me cool you down again/Turn, baby, turn," which could be heard as an invitation to repent of the choices they made together. Elsewhere on the song, though, he says, "Get a little bit closer to me/ … Let it take control of you/Every cell inside your body, each and every bone/Burn, baby, burn, let's cool it down again."
Suggestive moments on "Drive Me" are much more clear: "I can't help but giving in/This stranger with no name/Dancing like a flame/Like a moth I cannot be turned away/ … I'll let you drive me crazy/I love your moves/I like your style/With them hips you drive me wild." He also tells this woman, "I'll be all the drug you feel." Hypnotically sensual stuff turns up on the next track too: "Wanted Is Love" reads, "Take me in, take me out/Till I'm nothing more than words spoken from your sweet mouth/Dance around like no one can see/Move your body with the rhythm, move your body next to me/Wanted is love."
"Gone, Gone, Gone" includes a reference to a now broken-up couple perhaps sharing a bed again together in the future ("You will never sleep alone") and also hyperbolically promises to cross all sorts of lines if that's what's needed to help her ("If you need help/ … I'll shut down the city lights, I'll lie, cheat, I'll beg and bribe/To make you well").
Phillip Phillips' path to Idol victory was fraught with drama—and not just the kind that happens when judge Randy Jackson suggests that a performance was "a bit pitchy, dawg." Throughout the season, Phillips suffered from kidney stones too large to pass, so much so that it wasn't clear if he'd be healthy enough to finish the competition. He soldiered on, and then had surgery to remove them immediately after winning.
Given those physical struggles, it's refreshing to hear songs in which he sings about facing his fears and moving forward despite lingering uncertainties. In those themes, as well as in the moments Phillips mentions his faith, there's much to like in his debut effort. Less praiseworthy are a handful of songs in which he indulges some sensual urges.