First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2009, Volume 16, #12
Written by John Metzger
Wed December 2, 2009, 06:30 AM CST
Phish’s transformation into an arena act was already underway when Jerry Garcia died in his sleep in 1995. The subsequent demise of the Grateful Dead was merely the final straw that pushed Phish over the edge, forcing it to fill a market it didn’t necessarily want to cultivate. For a time, Phish handled itself admirably, opting to play multiple-night engagements in smaller venues whenever it was feasible. Increasingly, however, the group was falling into routines and finding it difficult to maintain the intimate bond it had had with its fans. By the end the decade, the repercussions of performing in such isolated environments had begun to have a negative impact upon the ensemble. Phish’s decision to suspend its operations in 2000 was less surprising than its choice to reconvene two years later. Finding that little had changed, the outfit hung up its collective hat, presumably forever, in 2004.
Even before its first hiatus, the members of Phish — Trey Anastasio, Page McConnell, Mike Gordon, and Jon Fishman — were pursuing their own interests via an array of side projects. At first, these seemed like healthy diversions that were designed to process information and bring fresh perspectives back to the ensemble. By 2004, however, it looked as if the musicians, particularly Anastasio, were more interested in pursuing solo careers than anything else. Time, of course, does heal all wounds, and despite Anastasio’s best attempts at self-sabotage, the collective slowly but surely rediscovered the things that originally had made it tick.
Rumors of Phish’s full-fledged reunion were circulating long before the announcement of its summer tour schedule. McConnell’s self-titled solo effort provided at least a small indication that something was underway, and sure enough, it soon became known that a new album also was en route. When official word of the release was handed down, Phish’s fans undeniably were ecstatic, but many also wondered what version of the band they were going to get. Would it be the arena-made act that resorted to gimmicks, standardized set lists, and partially scripted jams? Or would it be the outfit that could deliver any style of music at any given time, using a bass riff or piano chord as leverage to jump from heavy soul-jazz to majestic prog-rock, seemingly on a whim?
If there were lingering doubts about the group’s status after its initial salvo of concerts this past March, Phish erased them over the course of the summer as it powered its way across the country, looking like an outfit without a care in the world. Having passed its first test, Phish submitted Joy, its 14th studio album, to the masses in early September. Although the collective already had revealed all of the set’s contents via its recently completed slate of shows, the outing still took many people by surprise. From start-to-finish, Joy was consistent and cohesive. Building upon their collaboration on the 1996 endeavor Billy Breathes, Phish and producer Steve Lillywhite managed to concoct the finest and most self-assured outing of the band’s career.
Phish had laced Billy Breathes with some semblance of a storyline, but it was so cryptic and incomplete that it played only a minor role in the success of the endeavor. By contrast, the narrative thread that runs through Joy is quite discernable. The collection is entirely about the trials and tribulations of Anasastio’s life in the past decade, and in many ways, its mature, reflective outlook stands as an homage of sorts to the Grateful Dead’s late-career gem In the Dark. Gordon offers his own perspective on the matter during Sugar Shack, while McConnell provides a moment of levity on I Been Around. The other eight tunes on Joy were all penned by Anastasio and his longtime collaborator Tom Marshall. They don’t pull any punches either. Their lyrics drip with honesty, as Anastasio explains not only how the pressures of Phish dragged him down (Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan) but also how his coping mechanisms kept him there (Ocelot). Elsewhere, on the title tune and Backwards Down the Number Line, Anastasio apologizes by professing his love for his family, friends, and bandmates, and in the concluding Twenty Years Later, he wisely admits that although he has survived, it will always be a struggle for him to stay on the right path.
Musically speaking, Joy is quintessential Phish. Everything that the band has ever done well — the keen, melodic, Beatle-esque pop; the hard-charging, Who-imbued anthems; the slinky, R&B-textured grooves; and the angular, multi-part, progressive-rock theatrics — is folded into Joy’s nooks and crannies. With the exception of the expansive Time Turns Elastic, the album’s songs are actually quite economical. Yet, they also have a tendency to split open and melt at just the right moment. Backwards Down the Number Line, for example, erupts in a blazing fireball of jubilant notes from Anastasio’s guitar, as if to cheer for the celebration of Phish’s return. Meanwhile, on Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan, Gordon’s bass lines and McConnell’s piano chords play and dance, but Anastasio’s tormented solo lags behind in pursuit of the freedom that eludes him.
Joy is not just a welcome comeback or a simple return-to-form. It also is a legacy-making endeavor, the kind of album that Phish has been trying to craft for the better part of the past two decades. Anastasio may have taken his band on a trip to Hell and back, but he returned with a wealth of experiences. Better still, he was able to translate them into a sequence of vital, interesting, and timeless songs that collectively extend beyond the reaches of the caravan of cars that typically fill the parking lots at the band’s concerts. Phish has rediscovered the joy of performing, and at long last, it also has found something meaningful to say.
Of Further Interest...
Joy is available from
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1 Star: Pitiful
2 Stars: Listenable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Can't Live Without It!!
Copyright © 2009 The Music Box