Ian Axel and Chad King of piano pop band A Great Big World (AGBW) seem to have hit on that elusive formula that makes their songs both irresistibly catchy AND strikingly authentic.
A mere 12 hours after hearing their sophomore album When The Morning Comes in its entirety, I was already easily singing along to the big melodic hooks and memorable choruses of every song. At the same time, the unique vulnerability in the words being sung was reeling me in, giving these (otherwise pretty simple) lyrics an emotional depth you wouldn’t normally expect from “happy clappy” pop tunes.
I actually don’t know of any other band that is this transparent about the experiences that go into their songs. But it makes sense for Axel and King because if there’s anything this duo knows how to do exceptionally well, it is to connect.
“All I Want is Love”
Hope, you’re just a name that I hold close
There when I needed you the most
And you brought me here
Where I can learn to love myself
Without the love of someone else
It’s fitting that an album full of love songs should begin with a track that celebrates, first of all, loving yourself. All I Want Is Love sets the tone for the rest of this musical journey: it’s undeniably beat-driven, with declarations that are almost shouted instead of sung, yet it still retains Axel’s signature piano playing that is at the heart of A Great Big World’s sound. Fantastic album-opener.
You’re like the thing that makes the universe explode
Into the colours of a world I’d never known
You keep turning, keep turning my life around
I dare anyone to listen to this one and NOT sing along (or even dance)! With infectious acoustic guitar riffs that mirror the vocal melody, and plenty of percussion thrown in, this song captures that exuberant feeling of discovering the world for the first time after falling in love.
“End of the World”
We’ll live forever, they’ll study our bones
Write stories about us, and carve us in stone
So they can remember what true love was like
But this isn’t about them, it’s just us tonight
I could definitely see this song in an epic action or disaster movie soundtrack. There’s something dramatic about the minor key, the heavy instrumentation, the layers of vocal harmonies, and even the 6/8 time signature. Having said that, I am honestly not the biggest fan of the R&B influences here, purely as a matter of personal preference. (Also, I might be nitpicking, but the line “We could be the last love song ever sang” will always bother me. “SUNG”, guys, “SUNG”!) Still, the songwriting on this track does not disappoint, with the cadence of the lyrics locking effortlessly with the melody, and the powerful imagery in the words reflecting the intensity of a lover’s devotion.
“Hold Each Other”
Everything looks different now
All this time my head was down
He came along and showed me how to let go
The lead single off this album is a tuneful and effervescent love song that is difficult not to enjoy. Nonetheless, it would still probably be pretty generic if not for that pronoun change – from “she/her” to “he/him” – that grew into a huge statement in its own right. Sometimes the simplest of actions have the most far-reaching effects, and the fact that this happy, all-around normal little song has been making such an impact just continues to affirm AGBW’s philosophy of making the deepest connections simply by being honest.
Head full of lies, sun in my eyes, you make it easy
Nowhere to go, I’m already home, you gotta believe me
When we’re lost in a desert night
And we’re chasing our paradise
When we can’t fight another fight
We’re gonna make it
You’re my oasis
With plenty of soaring vocal harmonies and strings, this ballad is positively aching with hope. It’s a promise to go the distance, the heart’s cry of a lover who is in it for the long haul no matter what hardships are in store. One of my favourites for sure, and a possible tearjerker under the right circumstances.
I wanna be a thought inside your mind
I wanna see the starlight through your eyes
What’s it like?
Mid-way through the album and we come to what is probably the closest AGBW gets to a “filler song”. Despite some poetic lyrics in the verses, this track sounds just a little bit predictable and is simply not that outstanding in the context of all the other gems this album has to offer.
And yet it’s still catchy as hell and continues looping in my head, so whatever.
“Won’t Stop Running”
Facing forward, lights out, I won’t stop running
Falling backwards, hands tied, I won’t stop running
I’ll take another sunrise, another hand to hold tight
This isn’t over
I am way too young and I won’t stop running
King’s battle with multiple sclerosis some years ago is well known among fans, and it’s an inspiring story of determination in the face of overwhelming odds. Here he gives a metaphorical middle finger to the disease, as well as those who told him he would be paralysed, and says “well look at me now!”
This electronic-infused track is quite a departure from AGBW’s usual sound, with the drum machines and the generous dose of synth. As a result this is yet another song with an R&B flavour that I just cannot fully appreciate, which is a pity as the lyrics are on point and it also seems to be one of the fan favourites.
“One Step Ahead”
Nobody else would forgive my mistakes
Nobody else would’ve stayed
One step ahead of me
You saw what we could be
How did you know, down in your bones
That I’d come around?
This is my personal favourite on the album (at the moment). The insecurity intertwined with hope that this song describes are exactly what I imagine I would feel in any sort of relationship. Knowing that this was the song Axel wrote and used to propose to his fiancee makes it tug at all of our heartstrings even more.
The message of this song is, essentially, “Thank you for not giving up on me” – which makes so much sense considering Axel has mentioned that this is the opposite of their earlier hit Say Something.
Come to think of it, the two solo tracks in this album are wonderfully characteristic of the two band members’ individual styles: a soulful, determined declaration for King (“Won’t Stop Running”) and a heartfelt piano ballad for Axel (“One Step Ahead”).
“Future’s Right In Front Of Me”
I walked alone, I was scared of who I knew that I could be
But there was beauty in the darkest parts of my uncertainty
And now I finally see
The future’s right in front of me
If I could point to one song on this album that stands out as The Most Relatable, it would be this. Against a backdrop of cheerful ukulele strumming and spirited percussive beats, Axel and King sing about what is presumably their experience with worrying about the future, and their tone is one of exhilaration and freedom in finally shaking off what used to cripple them. Their personal growth and maturity is obvious in this development of healthier attitudes and appreciation of life’s mysteries.
It’s especially meaningful that they take turns singing individual lines in this track, their voices weaving around each other’s in an almost call-and-response manner, since their years of “growing up” have been such a shared experience for the both of them.
“When The Morning Comes”
When the lights go out, and the bombs come down
I will hear your heart beating
When the morning comes, and the war is done
You will hear my heart beating
Fittingly, the title track manages to encapsulate the overarching album theme of love overcoming all. The lyrics evoke stirring mental images of light and hope breaking through darkness, describing a cherished relationship being under siege, surviving through the night, and emerging stronger for it.
Musically, the rolling drums, sustained organ chords, and chorus of backing vocals all work together to enhance this picture of a beautiful dawn breaking after a storm. My only complaint is the hint of R&B influence in the melody of the verses and the use of a drum machine, which, while adding variety to the texture, possibly takes away from the potential grandeur of the song.
“Where Does The Time Go”
Where does the time go?
We’re too young to get lost looking back
Life doesn’t always give us answers
Some dots they won’t connect until the years go by
Tucked away at the end of all the big dynamic anthems is this treasure of an acoustic ballad, the kind of song you listen to on a rainy day snuggled under blankets with a warm mug of tea. Wistful, reflective, and packed with nostalgia, this song was borne out of the duo’s whirlwind experience of shooting to fame and wishing they had been fully present in the moment to enjoy all of it.
I can’t emphasise enough how well Axel and King’s voices complement each other. And this track suitably showcases these signature vocals, as they switch seamlessly between melody and harmony throughout the song, bringing the album to a perfect conclusion.
Of course, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the quirky theatricality of the first album, or the themes – less romance, more searching for meaning/wondering about aliens/assurances of individual worth. But the themes in When The Morning Comes are from the stage of life that Axel and King are in, and this is their truth now. And if the change also includes a more multi-faceted sound and improved production quality, there really isn’t anything to complain about at all. As their fans are fond of proclaiming, it seems that it truly is impossible for A Great Big World to produce bad music.
When The Morning Comes is a celebration of love and of life. There is something triumphant, and at times even defiant, in its optimism and joyfulness. And that could very well be exactly what this great big world needs right now. (Desiree Boey)