It seems that most of the conversation surrounding Phish these days is based around their ‘new direction’. With such a musically dynamic band, it is clearly hard for them to sit still. Every one of their past albums explores numerous genres, showing their ability to adapt their sound to diverse musical textures. As Trey explained after releasing his solo album Bar 17, a song with an intro has 2 bars of eight, which means the story or song begins on the 17th bar. Thus, Bar 17 was the beginning of Trey’s story. Joy can be thought of as the 18th bar. The next step in Phish’s musical story. Yesterday, Phish officially released “Backwards Down the Number Line” the song Tom sent to Trey on his birthday, which shows the continued progression in Phish’s songwriting. Phish’s shift toward deeper meanings and messages is similar to the shift in the Beatles songwriting that occurred in late 1964.
After meeting Dylan, Lennon and McCartny’s songwriting shifted towards a more narrative approach with deeper meaning. Dylan’s influence can particularly be heard in John’s “I’m a Loser”. The album is still heavily influenced by their earlier songwriting techniques, as are the following two albums Help! and Rubber Soul. It was not until Revolver that their new songwriting form fully took over. Songs such as “Taxman”, “Eleanor Rigby”, “I’m Only Sleeping”, “Yellow Submarine” (as well as pretty much every other song on the album) all feature deep meanings and a very new style that separate the Beatles from their earlier years.
Listen to I’m a Loser by the Beatles
A similar progression seems to have taken place with Phish. Their initial songwriting approach was to create masterful compositions and layer them with jokes and playful lyrics, much in the spirit of Zappa. This style defined Phish in their early years, and its what made them who they are today. However, by the time Farmhouse was released, everyone noticed a major shift in the band’s songwriting. I remember people complaining that it wasn’t Phish and for whatever reason, the album was no good. Similar to the Beatles, the progression actually took place much earlier and saw similar resistance. Hoist , for example, saw a shift toward a more lyrical base, with a greater reliance on meaning.
The albums (that include lyrics) following Farmhouse, Round Room and Undermind, followed the progression of the prior album. Straying from the abstract lyrics and music that defined their early years, the later albums have a far greater reliance on lyrics with meaning, and noticeably less composition. “Pebbles and Marbles”, “Anything but Me”, and “All of these Dreams” are a stark contrast to the early Phish songwriting style. “Pebbles”, which is one of the few later extended compositions, has insightful lyrics that reflect the style of “Time Turns Elastic”. Unlike their earlier compositions such as “YEM” or “Guyute”, these lyrics actually seem to be delivering a message. Joy seems to be following the same path, offering more lyrics and relying more on improvisation than composition. As Trey said in a 2006 interview with JamBase:
“As you get older, you are interested in nothing but emotion and you start finding lyrics and singing to be the most direct path to the heart. This is the way I see it: Music is a language. You get to a point where you are either writing, composing, or improvising on the guitar, all you want to be doing is turning your mind off and just emoting. But if you go through the very slow process over years and years of studying all this stuff – all these different styles of music and learning about how horn voicings work, practicing all your scales up and down, and trying to discover the secret beauty of the language of music – then when you try to speak simply, you’re speaking simply but it’s informed and that gives you the possibility of having a more sophisticated or a deeper emotion. And at the same time, I guess it just happens, life goes on and shit starts to happen to you. So it starts to become very desperate, like you really need to express these emotions and you feel like you’re just gonna die if you don’t.”
It’s clear to anyone who is familiar with the history of the band that they have a lot to express. And if it’s as urgent as Trey says it is, this album is going to be a major outlet. Reading into some of the songs, one can gather some of the messages that may be contained. “Reach for a beer, glad that I’m here, when I realize that you’re not around…” seems to be a reference to Trey’s trouble with drinking. Other songs seem to be a message to the fans from the experiences the members have gained. Perhaps the motivation to release Joy has been brewing for some time. In the same 2006 interview with JamBase as above, Trey said the following offering a glimpse into the future:
“My dream is that one person one day would hear some song that I wrote and have it brighten their day a little bit, I absolutely live for that, and if that can happen, then it would make me really, really happy.”
To read the 2006 JamBase interview with Trey, CLICK HERE.
Listen to the “Backwards Down the Number Line” from SPAC 2009-08-16.
Have a great weekend! Here’s the debut of the new Jon Fishman original “Party Time”.