When Phish broke up in 2004, for what many thought would be forever, they went out on a bad note. Their last performance, closing Coventry Festival, was an epic muddy disaster, and their last album is still widely regarded as their weakest.
Still, though, Phish fans had faith, and when the band returned with a three-night stint at Hampton Coliseum in March, no one was surprised that Phish was playing at their early-90’s best. The sold-out return weekend was only the beginning; the summer tour raged on coast to coast for three months, with the band packing every venue and rocking every show.
The release of Joy bridges the gap between the end of summer tour and the next Phish extravaganza, Festival 8, being held at the Empire Polo Club in Indio, CA — the same site as Coachella — over Halloween weekend. All of the songs on the album were played during the summer tour, and one of the tracks, “Time Turns Elastic”, was performed in May by frontman Trey Anastasio with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.
Joy is a balance between the signature upbeat, short ditties of the late 80’s and the long jams that marked the band’s climax in the early ’90s. The 15-minute “Time Turns Elastic” is countered by the short, spirited “Kill Devil Falls”; the whole album is a series of back-and-forths between extended improvisations and cheery, kicking tunes.
The album kicks off with “Backwards Down the Number Line”, the first new song to be performed live by the band. The two-minute guitar solo, courtesy of one Trey Anastasio, sets the bar for the rest of the album, and Big Red never fails to see it through. Another great feature of the track is how Anastasio harmonizes with himself; all over the album, the vocals are double-tracked so that there can be twice as much “Trey” in the chorus. The next track, “Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan”, is a similarly-rocking number and a personal favorite. Having debuted this past June at Jones Beach, inarguably one of the best shows this writer’s ever been to, “Stealing Time” doesn’t lose anything in the studio. The opening verse, “Got a blank space where my mind should be,” is poignant for many old-school Phish fans who remember the Anastasio from 2004, a drug-addled fallen (guitar) hero.
Titular track “Joy” is one of those slow songs that makes you want to hug all your friends. The super-cute lyrics would be too much if not sung by Anastasio, whose delivery seems so honest that it’s easy to forget the chorus, “We want you to be happy/’cause this is your song too,” wasn’t written for each fan individually.
One standout here is “Sugar Shack”, sung by bassist Mike “Cactus” Gordon. The brief respite from “Trey”-time allows the instrumental skills of all four members to shine through, and the track benefits accordingly — by far the funkiest on the album, it displays the weirdness and group effort that marks the live Phish experience. That silliness brands the last half of the album; “Kill Devil Falls”, “I Been Around”, and “Ocelot” are all fun, fantastic tracks with an upbeat, colorful energy.
“Twenty Years Later”, the final song on Joy, is a quick little goodbye from the band featuring some sick bass lines from ol’ Gordo himself. It’s easy to imagine the band waving goodbye to you as you drift into a cloud of Phish-y haze as they sing, “It’s a small world, but it’s turning real fast/It’s a new day, and the morning has passed…”. This track carries some great vocal trade-offs between Anastasio and McConnell, with McConnell owning his portion of the chorus with his sweet, gentle sound.
Rolling Stone quoted Anastasio as saying, “[Joy] feels more like a live record than a lot of our live records.” He wasn’t exaggerating. Joy has the energy of a live show, charged with stellar compositions that all feel balanced and succinct. Phans will not be disappointed.