Phish: Twenty-Odd Years Later
Phish – Joy
September 8, 2009
Victim of Loudness War? No
Typically, when a band reconvenes after publicly hanging it up and going their separate ways for a number of years, the magic just isn’t there. Usually, there is a distinct reason the band chose to end their run in the first place and more often than not that reason proves valid. In the case of Phish, the four members had decided that they had run out of creative gas after fifteen years and wanted to individually move into different projects. This was pretty apparent by giving a listen to either of the band’s last two studio releases, 2002’s Round Room and 2004’s Undermind. While both contain some truly excellent additions to the Phish catalog, both albums simmer rather than boil and never really reach the high standard the band had established for itself from its inception in the late 1980s.
Therefore, when Phish announced in mid-2009 that they were getting back together for a Summer tour and a new studio release, there was a certain amount of apprehension about the whole deal. Although the guys had been successful in their solo endeavours (particularly singer/guitarist Trey Anastasio, who continued to sell out theaters nationwide with the various incarnations of his touring band), none had matched the artistic or commercial success they had under the Phish banner. Plus, several members of the band had expressed their utter frustration and lack of motivation within the group and made it quite clear that the band would not reunite in the future. After all, they had already taken a two-year hiatus from late 2000 through New Year’s Eve 2002, so the fact that they closed up shop a mere two years later indicated that the spark that lit the fire was simply not there anymore. Everything seemed to add up to one big cash grab for all those involved.
Luckily, Joy puts to rest all of the worry associated with this once-unlikely reunion. While not as iconic as some of their classic albums, Joy succeeds in revitalizing Phish and finds them turning in their best collection of songs since 1996’s Billy Breathes, an album which was a high-watermark in the band’s significant studio output. This might be due in part to the fact that Phish opted to reteam with producer Steve Lillywhite, the same man who was at the helm of Billy Breathes and garnered truly magical results. Lillywhite has managed to get more of the same from the band this time around, moving Joy past being a reunion to being a strong effort from a road-tested, proficient powerhouse.
Joy opens with “Backwards Down the Number Line,” an up-tempo track that introduces the theme that is weaved throughout the album’s ten tracks: time and its inevitable passing. Unlike most bands that have been around for two decades or more, Phish don’t try to reclaim their former spirit or act like they’re still in their early twenties. Instead, the band addresses the fact that twenty years have gone by and use the skills they have learned over that period to inform their current sound. “Do you know why we’re still friends? / Laughing all these many years / We pushed through hardships tasted tears,” Anastasio sings during “Backwards,” revealing that the band has come through some tough times, personally and creatively, over the years but have managed to remain close and get past it all for the sake of the music that they create together.
Passing time is a constant throughout Joy. Whether it’s remember a grown woman as a child (“Joy”), struggling to retain important memories (“Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan”) or accepting the changes chronology can bring (“Kill Devil Falls”), Phish has clearly wrestled with time going by and have seemingly dealt with it accordingly. While this constant focus on time and its ability to speed by may sound like a tedious venture on paper, it proves quite successful throughout Joy. After all, given the loyalty of Phish’s core following, most fans of the band have been with them since the beginning and have grown along with them. The audience has experienced the same passing of time that the band has experienced and no doubt feel connected to the lyrical themes Anastasio and Co. put forth throughout the record.
No matter how contradictory the reunion of Phish might seem upon a cursory glance, the fact is that the band is back because they still have a musical statement to make. Joy reveals that Phish still have something to say and proves to be an integral part of their vast musical canon. If this record winds up being the one and only studio release that the reunion yields, the band will at least close their book on a more appropriate chapter. Undermind ended things on a melancholic note, as fans watched their favorite band sputter out rather than go down swinging. Joy, by contrast, shows Phish in top form and displaying a cohesion that they haven’t shown since 2000’s Farmhouse. Twenty years later, Phish has returned to form and turned in a winner.
– Ian Rice
To purchase Phish’s Joy, please click here.
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