If I were to make a video of what it feels to listen to Phillip Phillips’ new album Collateral, it would start with a needle touching the black groves of a vinyl disc. Deeper and deeper, round and round we would go as the music would start to slowly unfold, revealing its promises and much awaited secrets.
At least three years in the making, Collateral, Phillip’s third studio album, comes loaded with deep personal struggles that prevented Phillip from officially releasing any new music. Caught in a legal battle with 19 Entertainment for the best part of those three years, Phillip faced self-doubt and depression, and the fear of losing his ability to write music. A light amid the darkness was his relationship with his long-time girlfriend Hannah Blackwell, whom he married in 2015. It’s hard to imagine the heavy weight they carried in their young shoulders in the early days of their marriage. Despite this, there is no bitterness or anger in Collateral. Rather, the songs attest a profound humility and an acceptance and acknowledgement of the good that comes alongside of the bad, the collateral.
In an era dominated by singles and corporate curated playlists, it’s amazing to still be able to listen to an album that was made to be enjoyed from beginning to end and to be taken in as a coherent whole. Phillip manages to do this while still making twelve extremely distinct songs, each a world of their own. Though his two previous albums, The World From The Side of The Moon and Behind The Light, were equally eclectic, I think the perfect balance has finally been mastered in Collateral. This is Phillip’s gift after all, his unpredictable creativity: you never know what he is going to throw at you in terms of style, harmonic or melodic changes within songs, or even time signatures. Still, the songwriting road from some of my favourite Phillip Phillips’ songs, “Man on The Moon” or “Don’t Trust Me,” to a song like “Part of My Plan” or “Sand Castles” is enormous.
The album opens with “Magnetic,” a mid-tempo, slow-burning song about an irresistible relationship, a sensual, sexy declaration of love. Soon though, we go into much deeper territory in “Part of My Plan” which builds from a sparse, almost absent melody into a gorgeous, full and truly moving chorus and ending. The first time Phillip sings “you’re the only part of my plan” is a revelation, not only in his careful, gentle delivery of the line, but also in the beauty of the statement, a truth delivered as much to his loved one as to himself. The mood shifts quickly on “My Name,” which could be jarring if the song and Phillip weren’t so good at hooking you immediately into its heavy, but expansive riff and chorus. The song pays perfect homage to great 90s rock but it is also firmly placed in the 21st century, perfectly at home in Phillip’s album.
The surprises continue on “I Dare You,” a true throwback to a time when sophisticated jazz and lush sounding records dominated the airwaves. This is only the fourth song and we have already experienced three completely different moods. Still, there is no question that here the album reaches a new peak. My heart jumped with joy when I saw that “I Dare You” was co-written with David Ryan Harris, who worked with Phillip on the wonderful “Tell Me A Story” and “Alive Again.” It is worth a listen not only for its great lyrics (“My heart never lies…I dare you to trust me” Phillip sings) but for its spectacular outro, a cinematic, dreamy orchestral arrangement, lead by a truly brilliant guitar solo. Believe me that it works, magnificently.
The guitar solo on “I Dare You” is a highlight among an already extraordinary display of exciting musical moments. The bridge in “My Name,” the fantastic horns at the end of “Don’t Tell Me,” the cello in “What Will Become of Us,” the drums pretty much throughout. There is so much music to sink your teeth into in this album, it will reward many repeat and careful listens. There is also “Sand Castles,” a song I can only describe as strange and otherworldly in its melancholy; it’s one of Phillip’s most rewarding musical experiments so far. This is one which I have avoided listening to until I am fully prepared to let its musical waves wash over me completely, anything else feels unfair.
This is Phillip’s most self-assured writing in terms of his lyrics as well. Love is a constant theme, all kinds of love: reverential in “Her Mystery,” truthful in “Part of My Plan,” humble and romantic in “Dance With Me,” sexy and plainly about sex in “Magnetic” and “Love Junkie.” I think that even though Phillip has always displayed incredible authenticity through his music, he has always managed to camouflage himself in his lyrics. Here, though still universal, the lyrics appear not only more specific but intimate as well. In fact, the entire album seems to capture a mood of extreme intimacy, of being isolated from the world with the person you love, of days filled with small epics and discoveries. Only in the triumphant closer, “Into The Wild” does he finally seem to be looking out into the world with his lover–the adventure has just begun.
From the beginning, one of the things I have enjoyed the most from Phillip has been to see the work and the ambition that has gone in the writing of the music. In Collateral, all traces of struggle are gone. What’s left is the heart. This is Phillip finally in complete control of his abilities and creativity, and in realizing his vision of how his music should sound like on an album. “Now I know exactly who I am” he sings powerfully in “Part of My Plan” – I don’t doubt it. Collateral is a declaration; the true Phillip Phillips has arrived.