When Phillip Phillips won “American Idol” in season 11, it wasn’t due to his outgoing personality. In fact, on-air interviews with the Georgia native during the Fox show’s 2012 run often felt more like an exercise in single-syllable vocabulary — as in, how many Scrabble no-brainers can you fit into one sentence? Luckily, the then-21-year-old’s good looks more than made up for any challenges that come with being on national TV for the first time. But Phillips’ victory helped him find his voice, even if the debut album that came as the prize, 2012’s “The World From the Side of the Moon,” was more of a major-label construct boosted by the success of his coronation single, “Home.” Even so, the sound that Jimmy Iovine and crew came up with was spot-on: a hint of Mumford & Sons, a dash of Dave Matthews Band, all wrapped in a tidy bow that invited an enthusiastic hum-along.
It worked so well that Phillips and the powers that be seem hesitant to rock the boat on the follow-up. Phillips’ sophomore album, “Behind the Light,” feels more like a collection of big singles as opposed to a coherent album, with ebbs and flows. He mostly adheres to a strict formula: acoustic-based melodies accented by strings, building up to a huge hook and back again. With Gregg Wattenberg — who has logged his fair share of hours recording “Idol” alums in addition to acts like Rascal Flatts and Five for Fighting — co-producing, there’s a big-room sound throughout: Single “Raging Fire” is Coldplay-esque, and opener “Searchlight” features guitar strumming over a festival-ready four-on-the-floor kick drum. We live in the era of Avicii and his arena-folk music – even Phillips has to play ball.
Tracks like “Midnight Sun,” which sounds like a distant cousin of “Home,” and “Alive Again Me” prove that Phillips isn’t one to let a cliched lyric stand in the way of a good hook: “Say it loud/You know it’s true/That I’m just a fool for you,” he sings on “Fool for You.” That confidence also shines through in his vocals and guitar playing, both of which Phillips has honed impressively in the two years since the confetti dropped on him at Los Angeles’ Nokia Theatre.
Phillip Phillips Talks ‘Raging Fire’ Single & Sophomore Album
Still, it’s when Phillips tries to rock, on songs like “Fly” — perhaps emulating the headliners for whom he has opened (John Mayer, Matchbox 20) — that he falls short. At the same time, those harder-edged songs point to the direction in which he could grow. “Thicket,” meanwhile, offers a glimpse of Phillip Phillips the songwriter. One of six tracks on “Behind the Light” he wrote himself, it strays from the album’s recipe with more ambitious arrangements and a vocal style reminiscent of the late Jeff Buckley. The tune also shows that Phillips isn’t always swinging for the fences – he can devise an incredibly pretty piece of music all on his own.
Like most of the “Idol” finalists lucky enough to nab a record deal, those A&R’ing Phillips clearly believe that bigger is better: The album seems to spare no expense in hiring orchestra players and band members to fill out his sparse, acoustic, singer-songwriter sound. Still, it would’ve been nice to have a more intimate moment with Phillips, as so many “Idol” loyalists experienced on the air not that long ago.