What American Idol winner Phillip Phillips may lack in artistic mettle, he makes up for in impeccable timing, as his debut, The World from the Side of the Moon, arrives in the throes of the roots-rock revival that’s seen acts like Mumford & Sons and the Lumineers scoring big commercially. To that end, Phillips, an unapologetic Dave Matthews Band acolyte, has the good fortune to sound relevant in a way that few American Idol winners ever have, as The World from the Side of the Moon often plays like Mumford & Sons’ Babel with training wheels. As a more polished, radio-friendly reiteration of what a host of other artists are already doing, the album positions Phillips for broad commercial success, but it also raises significant questions about whether or not the singer-songwriter has the chops to maintain relevance once this folksy bubble inevitably bursts.
Aesthetically, there’s nothing distinctive about the competent acoustic-guitar strumming or the occasional banjo flourish or string section on tracks like “Hold On” or “Tell Me a Story,” and there’s nothing else in the production that would make those tracks definitively, recognizably Phillips’s work either. Songs like “Drive Me,” on which Phillips plays up the most graveled tones of his voice, and the country-adjacent “Can’t Go Wrong” are so derivative that whatever unique POV Phillips might have offered is completely overshadowed by the work he’s imitating.
Even on the set’s obvious standouts, the lead single “Home” and the propulsive “Gone Gone Gone,” it’s only Drew Pearson and Gregg Wattenberg’s studio sheen that distinguishes them from more rough-hewn cuts from the Lumineers’ self-titled album or from DMB’s Away from the World. The slick production is mindful of the material’s potential for crossover airplay, allowing songs like “Home” and “Where We Came From” to build to rousing, spirited choruses while keeping Phillips from creating too much of a ruckus. Although his voice has a weathered timbre, his performances are generally laidback and avoid Marcus Mumford’s style of overwrought, adenoidal bluster.
The World from the Side of the Moon is ultimately a polite, conservative album that balances Phillips’s genuine affection for roots music with the commercial bent that comes with being part of the American Idol franchise. But for the egregious, conceived-in-a-nightmare incorporation of Maroon 5-style pop-funk on “Get Up Get Down,” the album is never more or less than a pleasant listen. But as doggedly likable as Phillips and his aw-shucks grin might be, he spends far too much time sounding like he’s doing impressions of artists he likes rather than figuring out the artist he wants to be for himself.