Rift – The Concept Album

Almost 16 years to the day it was released (2.2.93), Phish’s fourth studio album, Rift, still holds a unique place in their history.  It was this album that began to lift the band from college gymnasiums and their own van to the long sought-after success of tour buses and a legit crew.  Though many of the songs on the album had been played already, when Phish put them into a particular order, coupled with symbolic cover art, representing every song on the album, their first “concept” album emerged. (“The Horse” was not depicted on the cover, though they would intentionally take of this with their next release, Hoist.)

pnt-4Narrating a restless night’s dream sequence of a man in a strained relationship, Phish took their studio intent to a whole new level.  While future albums would include more production value, Rift’s conceptual collection of songs still holds the trophy, in many fans’ minds, as the quintessential Phish album.

As the man on the cover falls asleep, he drifts into a first dream thinking about the “Rift” that has come between him and his love.  Via tense, driving music and lyrical symbolism, Phish recreates the frayed nerves and impassioned thoughts of the strained lover.

I spied wings of reason, herself taking flight
And upon yonder precipice saw her alight
And glared back at me one last look of dismay
As if she were the last one she thought I’d betray

As he describes the physical separation of the two, the man comes to understand what has driven her away.  As she looks at him with disdain through in his fantastical dream state, the man assumes the blame of his betrayal.

b000002hc5The second verse shows him futilely trying to convince himself that his life is “So much better” without her, yet he is still “struggl[ing] with destiny, and “gasping” as “defeated he f[alls] of the edge.” Clearly showing signs of second guessing his decision, the dreamer is consumed by “moments like these,” remembering back to that “terrible night that shocked and persuaded [his] soul to ignite” for her.

“Fast Enough For You” is his second dream of the evening, and finds the man wishing things were different and as they once were.  “If time were only part of the equation,” he wistfully laments.  The album’s two interludes of “Lengthwise” are to be taken quite literally, as the dreamer is lonely, sleeping diagonally trying to fill up the physical and existential space she has left in his bed and in his life.

As the night moves on and he moves into a deeper sleep, his dreams get darker with the onset of “Maze.”  With music that perfectly matches the hectic lyrical confusion of the song, the man feels himself as trapped, while others laugh at his utter dismay.  To be taken in the context of his relationship, the man is “embarrassed with failure” and “tr[ies] to reverse the course that [his] tread [has] already traversed.”  Burdened with regret and plagued by helplessness, he is completely overwhelmed by his emotional state, hearing voices inside his head telling him he’s lost it” and he’ll “never get out of this maze” that he has created for himself.  His inner struggle mounts.

“Sparkle” brings in some musical relief, but when looked at lyrically, the song isn’t so happy.

The pressure builds, you buy a gift
You’re hoping that your dread will lift
It glitters on her like a glass
You shudder as it comes to pass

Circa 1993

Circa 1993

These are desperate thoughts of someone trying to rectify a wrong, possibly with a “glass” wedding ring, hoping this could be the answer.  The lyrics expound on the topics of  apology, confusion and shame- emotions that plague our cosmic dreamer, while he hopes for the best.  Phish was clever here, creating a dynamic where, ostensibly, people think it is a happy song about laughing endlessly, when in fact it’s not.  The laughing is of the self-defeated nature.  As things don’t pan out as he’d hoped, he can no longer can think of words to express himself and he is left hopelessly laughing while he emotionally “falls apart.”

“Horn” is a beautiful composition, yet tells a story of bitterness and retribution.  Our dreamer seethes:

Now that you’ve deceived me, and played my name around
And hung those nasty flyers, on all the buildings in town
Dribbled my possessions in a ring around the earth
And bought and sold my self-control for less than it was worth

We are brought into yet another fragile mind-state of the man, this time resulting from frustration and anger.  Self-control gone, this dream represents the emotional roller coaster of his recent life.  He thinks of how she has beaten him down, yet he still yearns for their mundane past, wishing to tell her, “I’ll pick you up at eight as usual, listen for my horn.”

As he drifts into deeper sleep, the music constantly shifts, representing the various dream states that permeate one’s full nights sleep.  “The Wedge,” comes next, with him reminiscing about days gone by, and thinking:

That it’s the ocean flowing in our veins
Oh..that it’s the salt that’s in our tears
Oh..cause we could have come so very far
Oh..in at least as many years!

hw77Albeit melodic and bouncy, the lyrical path is still one of a love almost lost, and the bittersweet emotions that surround this delicate time.  Looking back over their relationship, he can’t fathom it has come to this.

The subsequent nighttime interlude comes in the form of the paranoid nightmare of, “My Friend, My Friend,” formerly titled, “Knife.”  With the opening verse, we see a picture of someone who believes his friend will murder him and marry his love.  Rife with Shakespearean overtones, and parallels the deceptive plot of betrayal in MacBeth, this song is the darkest, thematically, on the album.

My friend, my friend he’s got a knife
A statement from his former life
When he was easy but alone
Beside him was an empty throne
But what of silver silken blade
Affix his gaze, his features staid
Grasps the handle, clips the cable
One steps up, sits at his table
My friend, my friend, he’s got a knife
My friend, my friend, he’s got a wife

Musically, this song is a memoir of Phish’s composition-focused days, as the intro was composed as part of a whole with passages that would later become “Guyute.” The composition gives way to an eerie groove, darkening the texture of the dreamer’s subconscious, and illustrating his self-imposed paranoia.

“Weigh,” one of two Gordon scribed songs on the album, brings an episode of comic relief to the night of terror, as the dreamer ponders the absurd notion of beheading his lover so he can weigh her head.  His other wish is to:

…gather all your razors and pick all the
Little prickly hairs so I can weigh them

Leave it to Gordeaux to consistently redefine the absurd.

hw99“All Things Reconsidered” is a semantic and musical play on the theme of NPR’s show “All Things Considered.  This lyric-less piece’s symbolism comes shining through in its title.  The music brings us on a meandering path of introverted thought through the head of the dreamer as he rethinks his relationship from an internal perspective.

“Mound” becomes a glimpse into his bleak future reality that will exist without his love.  Foreseeing himself as a “broken old man” who “burie[s] all his memories of home, in an icy clump that lies beneath the ground,” this represents a self-prophecy of what he might become if he doesn’t reconcile his relationship with the woman he loves.  Approaching the mysterious mound, potentially symbolic of his future grave, and looking back over the happier parts of his life, the song goes:

He went over to the mound
Reclining down his final thoughts
Were drifting to the time this life had shined

“It’s Ice,” one of more musically and lyrically complex songs on the album, narrates the deep inner struggle going on within the dreamer.  As he looks at his his reflection, he confronts his alternate self.

He meets my eyes, to my surprise
He laughs in full light of my frown
My double wants to pull me down

The song continues to chronicle a fierce battle with himself as to which way his life should to go in light of his current circumstances.  Each part of him is personified.

Slipping on the friction slide, my skin peels to the bone
The flesh I leave behind, is something that is not my own
I beg my mirror image for a moment with my soul
He’s leaning back, time to attack, to see who’s in control

Potentially sparked by the grim foreshadowing of the previous dream of “Mound,” our character engages himself in a struggle for his destiny. This represents the most significant part of his part of his sleep and the album, as he will emerge from this inner-battle with the revelation that is “Horse > Silent.”

The lyrics of “The Horse” speak for themselves, though they can have two very different meanings:

It’s time I sling the baskets off this overburdened horse
Sink my toes into the ground and set a different course
Cause if I were here and you were there
I’d meet you in between
And not until my dying day, confess what I have seen.

Despite all the subconscious madness he has persevered through the night, he ends with revelations.  He can’t live without her, he must “set a different course.”  Or, alternately, he realizes that his efforts have been in vain, and that his desperate nature has led him to cling to a lost love.  The “different course” he must set is without the woman plaguing hus dreams. Regardless of which meaning you ascribe to the song, he realizes his destiny, which is foretold in “Silent In the Morning.”

…you’ve found your voice
It brings me to my knees
The volume just increases
The resounding echoes grow
Till once again I bask in morning stillness, I love so

The imagery of bringing him “to his knees” can symbolize in devotion or helplessness.  The final lines are the emotional peak, as he is resolute in reuniting with his estranged love, or conversely forcing himself into more promises he knows he can’t keep.  Ultimately, he knows he’ll be better without her; he’d rather “brush her off” and move on.  The poignant final lines of the song are sung in a round.

I will not dismiss you, shelter you, speak with you
Smile at you, trust in me, he’d like to brush you off, and I’d agree

The “morning” is not only symbolic of the end of his dreams, but also the dawning of his newly intentioned life, one way or the other.  Through the darkness the dreamer quests for a new beginning with hope and redemption.

Though Phish has created quasi-concept albums after this in Billy Breathes, Story of the Ghost, and somewhat less so, Undermind;   Rift remains the strongest example of perfectly executing a coherent musical narrative.  Lyrically rich and musically diverse, the album remains as the last relic of the “old” Phish.  Starting with “Hoist,” Phish would put much more money and production into their albums, working with famed producers from Steve Lillywhite to Bryce Goggin.  While each of their future albums took on a certain character of its own, you will find few that will argue with Rift as the most intriguing Phish album of all time.





0af84b4652dadb9e49d12904a54de7e14gOK!  We’ve worked out a few kinks, and the PHISH THOUGHTS TICKET EXCHANGE board is ready to roll.   The board is something that the public can look at, but you must send an email request to ticketexchange@phishthoughts.com with your email address in the subject line, and a funny joke as the text in order to add an entry.  An invite to the board will be sent to the email you provide. Remember this is a trading board, but also a place you can buy face value extras from fans who have them!

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6.25.97 L’Aeronef, Lille, France < LINK

phish-prague-97Out of the of many adventurous outings that made up Europe Summer ’97, this one was one of the best.  The first set was filled with new songs that had yet to make their US debut, while the second set is one of the best of the entire summer.  The first half was dominated by a monstrous and funked out “Disease” that became the norm for Summer ’97, with a pre-US “Piper” wedged in the middle.  This show marked the first ever appearance of “Meatstick,” with the band improvisationally chanting/singing the chorus over a tight chugging jam.  The set ending Antelope also smokes.

I: Oblivious Fool, Dogs Stole Things, Taste, Billy Breathes, AC/DC Bag, The Old Home Place, Theme From the Bottom, Wading in the Velvet Sea, I Saw It Again, Limb By Limb, My Soul

II: Down With Disease > Piper > Down With Disease > Meatstick* > McGrupp and the Watchful Hosemasters > Makisupa Policeman > Cecilia^ > HYHU > Rocko William > Run Like an Antelope+

E: Guyute

*New original.  ^Simon & Garfunkel cover, sung by Fish.  +Trey introduces the whole band and crew.

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201 Responses to “Rift – The Concept Album”

  1. Coventry Says:

    Kevin, that would be the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.

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