Phish turned 25 last November quietly; after all, they’d been defunct for over four years. So considertheir reunion LP, the self-released Joy, a belated birthday party.”Happy happy, oh my friend/Blow out candles once again” sings TreyAnastasio on the nostalgic opener, “Backwards Down the Number Line.”It’s the epitome of a Phish song, complete with bouncy country-rockgroove, merrily cryptic chorus and immaculately ecstatic guitar solo.And it leads off an unlikely gift: a genuinely great album from atouring phenomenon not known for great albums.
Funny thing aboutbirthdays, though: At a certain point, they become not merelycelebrations but occasions for reflection and even regret. The latterelements are what make Joy — despite a fair amount of joyfulness — a deeper trip than most Phish LPs. To a large extent the setreads as The Redemption of Trey Anastasio, who wrote most of the songswith longtime lyricist Tom Marshall. The frontman spent a portion of theband’s hiatus battling addiction and the fallout from a drug arrest, andthe lyrics frequently feel confessional. “I was doing the best that Ican, I suppose,” he sings on the wistful title track, clearly aware thatit wasn’t enough. In the lilting “Twenty Years Later,” the singer is”still upside-down” after decades of recklessness. And on theI-will-survive rocker “Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan” — in acouplet sure to launch a thousand Facebook status updates —Anastasio declares, “Got a blank space where my mind should be/Got aClif Bar and some cold green tea.” He sounds more exhausted thanenlightened.
Yet the music feels anything but beaten. The set reunitesPhish with Steve Lillywhite, who produced 1996’s Billy Breathes (theirbest studio set until now), and he perfectly balances studio detailingwith the band’s live whoosh. The playing is marvelously at ease and insync. Bassist Mike Gordon, like kindred spirits Phil Lesh and JohnEntwistle, sets up rubbery countermelodies inside the grooves. PageMcConnell’s piano arpeggios swarm like fireflies; drummer Jon Fishmankeeps the rhythms shifting, light and playful. And Anastasio plays hisballs off, spinning a sweet Caribbean melody on the metareggae “SugarShack” and ripping out raw blues licks on “Kill Devil Falls,” aboogie-till-you-puke number whose title works as a metaphor foroverindulgence (“Just got back from Kill Devil Falls/Draped mywaterlogged clothes in the hall”). The double-cresting solo of”Backwards Down the Number Line,” which bows to Jerry Garcia, is astrong contender for Anastasio’s sweetest studio moment ever.
Even onthe multipart, 13-minute “Time Turns Elastic” — Phish’s own”Terrapin Station” — there’s none of the overreaching that’sundercut the band’s past work. Overall, Joy seems less about ambitionthan about generosity — specifically to the group’s devoted fans.As Anastasio pledges on the title track, “We want you to be happy,’cause this is your song too.”
If you can’t enjoy Joy, you will probablynever enjoy Phish. Yet, to paraphrase a vintage Phish song, what’s mostimpressive here is how much they seem to be enjoying themselves —truly, deeply, gratefully. It’s nice to have them back.