I think Rob Alexander’s “When I’m Gone (For George Michael)”, the fifth single from his debut album Long Road Coming Home, is one of the most affecting ballads I’ve heard in years. There is nothing saccharine about his songwriting. The four minutes and change track is an impassioned, yet measured, performance that works as a tribute to a fallen pop icon and grapples with adult themes and questions in an intelligent and artful way. A single listen made it clear to me how his exceptional skills for song construction serve him well – “When I’m Gone” develops in a coherent and dramatic manner from a low key opening into a near symphonic sound engaging listeners and provoking a sustained emotional response that never strikes me as being earned on the cheap. Alexander may be a novice to releasing albums, but “When I’m Gone” makes it clear he has worked long and hard at his craft. His labors pay off enormous dividends.
Those dividends are apparent from the outset. The song’s opening captured my attention straight off thanks to its quaking sensitive spirit, anchored by Alexander’s voice and piano playing, but soon blossoms into something much larger. Muscular drumming comes into the song after the one minute mark and other instruments soon join the performance. There’s acoustic guitar, light keyboards, and a potent electric guitar solo wringing tremendous emotion from the track despite its simple and recognizable approach. These musical elements, among others, make it clear to me Alexander’s main mandate is to communicate with listeners and he does so with beauty and artfulness.
His lyrics do an exceptional job of communicating. He isn’t writing about a simple subject with “When I’m Gone” as it examines deep seeded questions all of us have about our inevitable demise and what effect it will have on the world and those we know, even by proxy, but I think Alexander deserves a lot of credit for tackling such a big subject without ever dragging listeners into outright darkness. There is, instead, something embracing life about his words despite the looming specter of death hanging over the tune.
Moreover, he writes about this topic without wasting a word. It is the same principle defining his approach to the musical arrangement as well. Alexander never overwrites or overextends the track – he works with excellent collaborators on this performance, producer Gabe Lopez chief among them, and their combined efforts keep each aspect of “When I’m Gone” on a forward looking path avoiding any potential pitfalls or useless sideshows.
His voice brings it all together for me. Going into this track and unfamiliar with Alexander’s previous singles, I expected a clear and pure pop vocal, but he upended my expectations to a certain extent. There’s a commercial edge present in his voice, without question, but there’s also grit and gravel, an atmospheric soulfulness adding considerable weight to his excellent lyrics. His singing brings layers of meaning to these words they might have otherwise missed.
“When I’m Gone” is more than just a musical elegy for a fallen pop star. Alexander has written a song any adult can relate to and he turns over the fullness of his heart to making it work for a broad based audience. I think it is a certain highlight of Long Road Coming Home and achieves its effects without taking any shortcuts. Instead, “When I’m Gone” swells with immense emotion that ensnared me from my first listen.
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