When Phillip Phillips won the eleventh season of American Idol two years ago, many fans of the show were happy, but not sure what to make of it. After a string of “white guy with guitar” winners, with Phillip capping off the trend as the fifth in a row, everything started to seem a bit like a meme for the diehard “Idoloonie” fanbase. Sure, it was America’s vote, and arguably, they’d voted for the right guy to win: his understated down-home personality and gravelly croon were hard to deny as he grew artistically week-by-week on the show. He made for a compelling contestant, and with his arena rock and folk leanings, it was clear that he could be marketed on the current mainstream scene… it was all just a question of “Will it actually happen?” instigated by those four males who came before him unfortunately having lesser luck on the pop circuit than he.
Flash forward just a half a year later and his coronation single, “Home”, is a smash success, eventually going 5x platinum and becoming the best-selling Idol single of all time. Who would’ve thought? Pair that with the success of follow-up single “Gone, Gone, Gone” and debut album The World from the Side of the Moon and Phillip was already experiencing a lucky streak unlike many other recent Idols. Riding such a high horse on the pop scene with these stats in-tow, there was (and is), needless to say, much to rely on with his sophomore effort. “Should Phillips not falter, he could be the true Idol answer to a male Carrie Underwood or Kelly Clarkson in terms of staying power!” isn’t an unheard-of thought ringing amongst many fans of the young Georgian singer/songwriter in the current moment.
Thankfully? Phillips more than enough proves in Behind the Light that he’s got what it takes to legitimately stick around.
On Behind the Light, Phillips once again teams up with acclaimed producer Gregg Wattenberg, who had previously overseen his debut album, as well as efforts from both David Cook and Jason Castro. In many ways, the result of this duo’s latest work is much what you’d come to expect, with lush, sweeping instrumental collectives of all manner of strings, guitars, bass, keys, horns and drums melding together with often radio-ready melodies sung with an idiosyncratic Southern trill. However, the record is also not without its new thrills and frills, arguably becoming more of the type of album Phillips himself would’ve been warm towards developing as compared to his more folk-influenced debut. Surely, there’s some of that sweet down-to-earth relatability still present in droves throughout the album, most sonically prominent perhaps in “Unpack Your Heart”.
Above and beyond this, though, is a high-octane rock flavoring more along the early Dave Matthews Band-esque style that he had originally cited as one of his greatest influences. Those expecting a second coming of Mumford & Sons may be disappointed here (checking out Idol’s 9th winner, Lee DeWyze’s latest might be more along your style), but that doesn’t stop Behind the Light from being an incredibly solid second effort from Phillips. Since his two years off of Idol, he has evolved into an artist that you can undeniably count on to produce a melodically-smart, uniquely-produced record most certainly quite unlike anything else currently on the market. Behind the Light is a darker, more brooding effort than The World from the Side of the Moon and that’s a good thing.
Thematically, and in terms of both sound and lyrical style, Phillips has taken a more calamitous path that, despite the description, is actually rather effective in piquing an audience’s interest and keeping it there.The World from the Side of the Moon and Behind the Light are two sides of the same coin in many ways, one wispy and hopeful and the other battle-torn and unsettled, neither necessarily “better” than the other more than they are representative of two sides of a person, and the artistic beauty behind him. One might say that it feels like Behind the Light is mostly louder than World in an effort to produce more radio-ready singles off of the bat, since the sophomoric effort is always the greatest test of an artist’s staying power, but to say that would be to misjudge Phillips’ intentions and to see the world from a purely economical standpoint. This is merely the type of artist Phillips is, never fearing to stray from going bigger in production to show off what crazy instrumental jams he can produce within two to five minutes.
There’s tons of hit potential in tracks like “Unpack Your Heart”, or like “Lead On”, “Open Your Eyes”, or “Midnight Sun”, with their pop-sensible development from verse to chorus, but they’re all fit into Phillips’ wheelhouse like only he’d know how to make ’em. This would be why he has writing credits on every single track on Behind the Light — an impressive feat for any artist in today’s landscape. It’s in this that one comes to realize Phillips isn’t someone to bank on an artistic “trend” just to be able to sell something, he is literally his own man behind the curtain, writing and arranging his work, as much as he is the one performing it. In that, he’s instantaneously a more legitimate and heartfelt artist than multiple others on the market, and it shows in his booming confidence and enthusiasm that he’s collected throughout the past couple of years as he enthusiastically jams his way through the album’s twelve tracks.
With this said, it’s when Phillips brings us a more intimate moment that he might be at his very best on the record. “FACE” shows off a jazz-riddled, soulful side of the singer/songwriter that we’ve never quite heard before, and to say the least, it’s truly compelling. “Thicket”, meanwhile, is the longest track on the album, ringing in at 5:03 and producing some darkly-cool string progressions along the way — it’s a style we haven’t quite heard from him since his performance on “The Stone” on the Idol stage, never quite going for a single “big moment” in his vocal as he is decisively showing off his ability to create a unique and compelling overall arrangement. On his inevitable third album effort, I’d personally be appreciative towards Phillips if he embraced these newfound side of himself even more. Should he offer up more jams in the style of “Thicket” and more intimate acoustic ensembles that show off his upfront singing abilities like “FACE” alongside the arena-filling rock collectives we are now coming to now him more for thanks to this sophomore work, he’ll hit what could be a perfect parity and take off in a way akin to “Home”.
As great as Behind the Light is and regardless of justifications behind its overall delivery, there’s no denying that there’s still something about Phillips that still hasn’t been fully uncovered yet. It isn’t a bad thing, though. He’s grown immensely as an artist since his Idol run and, arguably, he’ll keep growing whether the mainstream continues to embrace him or not. “Home” may have been the height of his career, but it isn’t haunting him in a “one-hit wonder” way; Phillips has proven himself as an artist, and though Behind the Light may not maintain the sales that its predecessor did for various reasons, the hard work put into the effort does not go unnoticed and the argument that he will inevitably have another smash hit still lingers.
Behind the Light is a palatable record full of deep, soaring choral ensembles that can’t help but make one wish for a few more moments of intimacy, but in its newfound hard-edged stylings, Phillips has proven he can write songs that fill arenas with gusto once unfounded in his delivery. The past two years have been good to the man, and as he moves forward in the industry, it’s pleasing to know that at least one big-time artist won’t be losing themselves- musically or otherwise -in the cacophony of celebrity anytime soon. He represents a refreshing idiosyncrasy in the current pop landscape and, I, for one, most definitely want him to stick around.
Musically, Phillip can only go up from here. He’s a masterful lyricist and genius arranger; now all that’s left is to create a more fine-tuned mix of songs on the next record. Ergo, he truly, truly deserves his spot in the industry and it makes me excited to have a musician like him out there making meaningful, tended-to music on the pop scene. Behind the Light may not be the complete home-run future works of Phillips’ are bound to be, but it comes darn close while marking a significant evolution for Phillips as a legit artist. That in itself is more important than anything.
To keep up with the latest from Phillip Phillips, follow him on Facebook and Twitter! You can purchase Behind the Light NOW on iTunes for either $10.99 or $14.99 depending on whether you download the regular or deluxe version. You can also buy a physical deluxe copy of the album via Target for $14.99 which features an exclusive track entitled “Grace” that’s most certainly worth it! For all of the latest music reviews, interviews, and more, follow me on Twitter!