Phish is the rare band defined almost completely by live performance. With ridiculous stage antics (such as choreographed trampoline dance), swirling psychedelic light shows and jovial communities of tie-dyed lot vendors, Phish shows are more like events than they are concerts.
Fans in ecstatic dress gleefully consume the stylistic experimentation, fearless improvisation and surreal unpredictability that make Phish a four-headed touring monster. The problem has always been that these strengths do not translate well into studio greatness. Phish albums are often charming and occasionally manic, but have never packed the exuberant sucker punch of their live act. Now, after a drug-induced breakup and a five-year split, is it too much to hope that Phish has finally broken the mold?
The answer is more complicated than you might think. Phish has captured their live sound better on Joy than any other studio effort — an exciting notion for sure — but the album does little else to propel itself above its predecessors.
The 10 tracks have an irresistible earnestness: guitarist Anastasio and Co. sound genuinely happy to be together making music again. Largely missing, however, is the group’s signature weirdness: The eccentric personalities that shine through on early releases Lawn Boy and Rift are barely present. Instead, Phish has constructed their most mature work to date.
The best that Joy has to offer comes tearing out of the sonic landscape in the form of its first two tracks, both co-written by the carrot-topped frontman and long-time lyricist Tom Marshall.
Opener “Backwards Down the Number Line” is an up-tempo rocker with irresistible harmony and sublime musical breaks where Anastasio’s guitar swells and sparkles. Page McConnell’s flurrying piano adds much-needed texture throughout the album, but is never more prevalent than on the disc’s rollicking second track “Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan.” “Stealing Time” is Joy’s shot of adrenaline and the unofficial announcement that middle-aged music nerds can still knock you on your ass. Not only is it a sinister piece of songwriting, but Anastasio’s soloing is unrelenting and his tone unmistakable, and Mike Gordon counters with dark, deliberate bass lines while the whole band repeatedly howls, “Got a blank space where my mind should be.” Along with the country blues of “Kill Devil Falls,” this song especially profits from Steve Lillywhite’s ace production, which seamlessly provides the number with a live presence rarely achieved in the studio.
Unfortunately, not all of the tracks on Joy retain the immediacy of its opening songs. McConnell’s only songwriting contribution, “I Been Around,” feels tacked on and forgettable. The directionless two-minute filler aims for dusty charm but ultimately comes off as irrelevant. Similarly, Gordon’s groove, heavy tropical freak-out “Sugar Shack” will please die-hards but few others.
Joy’s second half is distinguished by the epic 13 1/2-minute “Time Turns Elastic,” a prog-rock composition reveling in constant tempo changes and stitched together by Jon Fishman’s brazenly insistent drum direction. It’s a throwback for sure, aiming for but not quite achieving the sprawling beauty of early Phish masterpieces “You Enjoy Myself” and “Reba.”
In the end, though, Joy is a very solid collection of songs that finds the band sounding remarkably comfortable after a five-year absence. If you have not already joined the Phish circus, Joy probably won’t convince you to jump in an RV and hit the road, but the band’s unparalleled charisma finally glimmers through with this studio release. On the bittersweet title track, Anastasio sounds unabashedly honest when he sings, “We want you to be happy/ ‘Cuz this is your song, too.” See you on the road, my friend.
3 1/2 out of 5 stars.