Phish's last album, the double CD A Live One, distilled a decade's worth of dedicated road work by a group that has reinvented improvised rock for a new generation. If Phish have an identity, it is one characterized by endless change and musical risk, a yesterday-today-and-tomorrow sound that draws liberally from rock history and jazz innovation. Combine that with a rich, interactive mythology binding the band and its audience into the coziest symbiosis since you know who, and you've got a cultural force to be reckoned with. An exhaustive — and nearly exhausting — consolidation of Phish's tightly wound tunes and electrifying jams, A Live One, which went gold, finally gave the rock mainstream a chance to see what all the fuss was about.
Then, on their seventh record, they rested: Phish take a well-deserved breather, so to speak, on Billy Breathes, shedding much of the sophisticated trickery that has been their musical trademark. Billy Breathes, the group's first studio release in two years, is a quiet gem of an album, and it confirms that guitarist Trey Anastasio, drummer Jon Fishman, bassist Mike Gordon and keyboard player Page McConnell are much more than a jam band from Burlington, Vt., with a swelling fan base. As rustic as the New England countryside, Billy Breathes is a warm declaration of optimism packaged in concise, radio-attractive songs.
Phish's studio work has always been iffy. While the band's self-produced 1988 debut, Junta (re-released by Elektra in 1992 with extra material), still buzzes with novelty, 1993's Rift is just shy of being a great concept album. Lawn Boy (1990), A Picture of Nectar (1992) and Hoist (1994), listenable albums with bright moments aplenty, seem more like rough sketches that get a lot juicier onstage. Downright organic in comparison, Billy Breathes — co-produced by the band and Steve Lilly-white — flows like a stream dream.
The album begins with "Free" (first line: "I'm floating in the blimp a lot") and ends with "Prince Caspian" (first line: "Oh! To be Prince Caspian/Afloat upon the waves") — songs that celebrate the weightless ecstasy of the group's instrumental allure. "Character Zero" and "Swept Away" start out unplugged before veering off into something wilder and more electric; "Waste," "Talk" and "Train Song" have all popped up during the acoustic mini-sets that Phish recently began integrating into their shows.
If A Live One was Phish's variation on the Grateful Dead's Live/Dead, Billy Breathes is part Workingman's Dead and part Abbey Road, focused on musical essences often obscured by rock-concert spectacle. The songs — written mostly by Anastasio with his longtime lyricist, Tom Marshall (whose craft has matured big time since his "rhinothropic microgaze" period) — unspool guileless images of transcendence set against the struggle to evade the pitfalls of everyday miscommunication. "Talk," one of several song titles reflecting the album's elegant simplicity, could be directed at either a lover or an intruding crowd: "Nothing's ever soaking through the filter that surrounds your thoughts," sings Anastasio sweetly.
Birth is the subject of the loose suite of tunes that constitute most of the disc's second half — no surprise, since the album's title is a nod to Anastasio's baby daughter. With its intrauterine imagery and dank-underwater jam, "Theme From the Bottom" could refer to society's rejects or a resident of the womb. The blue-grass-flavored "Train Song" is imbued with the surreal Americana of O. Winston Link's photographs of the last steam engines; in the lyrics, passengers hope "to review the coulds before we were born/And to invite a new game of can'ts."
The suite proper begins with Anastasio's mantralike acoustic-guitar solo, "Bliss" (written originally for an injured fan), which segues into "Billy Breathes," an airy lullaby with the refrain "Softly sing sweet songs." Anastasio's sustained feedback opens onto a shimmering, Enoesque soundscape. "Swept Away," an appeal for respite from a pressing mob (of fans?), glides into "Steep," a psychedelic instrumental portrait of a 19th-century factory. This fades into the yearning chords of "Prince Caspian," in which Anastasio longs for an austerity symbolized by a grotesque desire to have "stumps instead of feet."
While a folky vibe prevails in the back-porch guitar picking and the band's gorgeous vocal harmonies, condensed suggestions of Phish's style of surging stage jams are heard intermittently. The arrangements contain secrets — whispering drum brushes, the mating call of a theremin — that I didn't catch at first; they echo a wide host of influences, some obvious (the Beatles, Traffic, Jefferson Airplane and Pink Floyd), others less so. McConnell's "Cars Trucks Buses" recalls the funky sound of the Meters and the jazz organist Jimmy Smith, while some of the album's short, fractured song hooks almost call Pavement to mind.
Full of subtle detail and unfashionable heart, Billy Breathes changes moods like a cloudy spring day. It contains one too many ballads: "Waste," with its supplication to "Come waste your time with me," is just too precious. But like the band itself, Billy Breathes is a living thing, low in irony and high in deceptively laid-back ambition. Consider it a breath of fresh air from the country's biggest cult act.