When talking to Rolling Stone in March, after Hampton, Trey confidently said that Phish has yet to make their best studio album. And after giving Joy a number of listens over the past couple days, it is pretty clear that Phish has still not crafted that elusive “best album yet.” On the heels of their two post-hiatus records, both of which carried a coherent musical vibe, Joy translates as a hodgepodge of styles, with its unity lying in its lyrical themes rather than musical connectedness. Whereas you could listen to “Round Room” or “Undermind” and get the sense of a conceptual piece of art, Joy leaves you feeling like you have listened to mix tape. While each songs is produced quite well and hold their individual merit, when the dust settles, this record may be Phish’s least cohesive studio offering since Hoist.
Opening with an enhanced rendition of “Backwards Down the Number Line,” Phish introduces the theme of the album right away. A reflection on life’s experiences and lessons learned, friendships and the passage of time, growing older while staying young; these introspective topics paint the portrait of a mature band reflecting on their past while still building an exciting future. The initial track musically benefits from Steve Lillywhite’s studio production, featuring rich vocal harmonies and a mix that accents Page’s leads as much as Trey’s. A lyrical tone-setter, ending with the line, “The only rule is It begins,” this is also one of the more impressive studio translations.
“Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan” follows up the opener with a healthy dose of psychedelic blues-rock. This infectious song, which begged for exploration all summer long, sounds just about the same as we’ve come accustomed to hearing it in the live setting. With not much added or taken away, the track delivers what we expected- a rocking single. A song that will likely see more attention when brought indoors, for the time being we can only imagine.
Phish seamlessly integrated the song “Joy” into their summer shows, using the poignant ballad as welcome respite from darker places. But the version on the album lacks the heartfelt warmth that has come to define the very song. Coming off a bit thin with an acoustic guitar and more pop-like, sing-songy lyrical cadence, the raw emotional weight of this song is compromised in the studio setting. I truly love this song, and I thought the studio version would ooze enchantment. It doesn’t.
The album continues with arguably its most impressive track in Mike’s “Sugar Shack.” With its quirky rhythmic changes and darting melodies tightened in the studio, this track pops off the album with as much spunk of any. A completely unique song, both musically and lyrically, its inclusion does nothing for the overall flow of the album. The fourth track in a row that bears little musical relation to the other three, this is where the mix-tape vibe really kicks in. With no obvious meaning, this songs seems to sit on its own, out of relation with the others on the record; but from a musical standpoint it just may be the most intriguing.
A return to the bluesy feel comes next with “Ocelot.” Seemingly the most light-hearted song on the record, this song could suggest a lyrical metaphor for recovery- a secondary theme of the album. Written from Tom Marshall’s perspective, Trey “pranc[ed] with the beasts who parade every night” and “silently slouch[ed] through the forest by light,” but doesn’t want him to be “the only one left on the block,” but instead to reunite with friends and family to “hide in the heard and float with the flock.” Musically crisp and clean, “Ocelot’s” folk fusion provides one of the most playful moments on Joy.
Joy’s patchwork continues with “Kill Devil Falls,” a song whose live performances have begun to evolve, but whose composition is still far too pedestrian for a legitimate Phish song. The Chuck Berry-infused rocker tangentially fits with the album’s loose blues-rock framework, but its benign musical template leads nowhere engaging. Lyrically in sync with the album’s vibe, Trey promises that he’s learned his lesson and “this time is gonna be different,” but yet, allows for human flaws, following up that line with “Until I do it again.” All in all, this track is bound by simplicity, and sounds like any band could have written it.
The most original and enchanting moments of the entire album come during the minute-plus intro to “Light.” With an ambient build up that was only suggested at Wallingford, CT’s Classic TAB performance last October, Phish introduces this powerful song with the only “new” music on the album. This soulful build into the song’s initial explosion sets the tone for the openly-expressive piece. Referencing his own path from addiction to recovery, the most personal lyric on the album may be “I’m left in the now with a wondrous glow- I think I’m still me, but how would you know?” Reflecting on the deeply introspective journey he undertook to get to today, Trey’s words are sung with a certain vulnerability that has seeped into to his later work. The lyric, “And finally waiting for nothing at all” also carries a significant meaning- things have finally come to fruition- the time is now. Creatively bursting with energy and finishing with a layered vocal round, “Light” is my personal favorite track on the album, and one that is infused with the promise of the future. “The light is burning brighter now…Guide us to our goal…”
The album’s theme of reflection comes across playfully in the short ditty, “I’ve Been Around.” Evoking memories of the last song at a high-school dance, this Page-scribed interlude references the ebb and flow of life; with its high times and its low times, the mysterious journey is never dull. Sometimes we “throw it down a while” and sometimes “the town throws it down on “us.” Coyly congruent with Joy’s greater meaning, “Ive Been Around” serves as a Phishy lead-in to the album’s conclusion.
While traveling a path that features four to five minute songs, the band’s decision to insert “Time Turns Elastic” into the mix here is a bit questionable. Clearly the album’s centerpiece, Trey’s lyrics- both literal and metaphorical- carve out the meaning of the song and its relation to the album’s central themes. But with so many intricately composed sections, this prog-rock epic doesn’t jive with Joy’s simplicity. Doing little to unify the record musically, “Time Turns Elastic” may have been better released as a single rather than part of this whole. (But I bet if you asked Trey, he’d say it is the key to the album.)
Gazing back over the landscape of their lives, the retrospective piece “Twenty Years Later” closes the album in dramatic fashion. Following the words, “the morning [of life] has passed, and “its a new day.” Soaked with the air of redemption, this song’s slower, lush soundscapes give it a more ominous feel- “Inside this silent sea, all are free, all are free, second time around.” It was a wise choice to rearrange the original order of the album’s songs, placing “Twenty Years Later” as the natural conclusion to counterbalance “Backwards Down the Number Line,” while providing an eerie denouement to “Time Turns Elastic.”
Interestingly, Joy is an album that contains consistent lyrical themes, but little musical cohesion. While the words carry consistent themes, the music jumps around with little to no connection, creating a studio album that leaves something to be desired. Questing for the album that is far bigger than the sum of its parts, Phish will live to record another day. Representing their return to the studio, Joy has both its successes and shortcomings, something we’ve come to expect from Phish’s recorded work. While pleasant to listen to, nothing on Joy will blow you away; the polar opposite of the band’s live dynamic. Four guys who were born to play live, Phish will always be master improvisers, but will they ever make that timeless record? The answer remains to be seen.
Jam of the Day:
A late second-set highlight at Shoreline, this is the only time either of these songs were played during the second leg of summer.
DOWNLOAD OF THE DAY:
8.11.2009 Toyota Park, Chicago, IL < Torrent
8.11.2009 Toyota Park, Chicago, IL < Megaupload
This mid-week stop in the Windy City connected the western and eastern parts of the second leg of tour. While there are several legitimate musical highlights throughout the second set, the overall presentation of the show seemed awkward and disconnected. “Number Line,” “Carini,” Jibboo,” and “Hood” stand out in this oddly constructed frame, following up one of the most uneventful first sets of tour.
I: Kill Devil Falls, Sample In A Jar, Ocelot, Paul and Silas, Windy City*, The Curtain With, Train Song, Gumbo, Heavy Things, Time Turns Elastic
II: Backwards Down the Number Line > Carini > Gotta Jibboo, Theme From The Bottom, Wilson, 2001 > Chalk Dust Torture, Harry Hood, The Squirming Coil
E: Loving Cup
Source: Schoeps CCM4V’S(din)>Lunatec V2>Benchmark AD2K>Sound Devices 722 (24/48) (Taper – Z-Man)Tags: 2009, Albums, Comeback, Joy