The first time I heard about Phish’s new album it was in working title mode as “Party Time.” This probably got a laugh out of most Phish fans, as the title lacks the one thing the band has mastered over the years - subtlety of wit.
And so even with a name change - now to “Joy”, with “Party Time” demoted to title a second disc of cuts - subtlety is still out, the theme this time around being youthful optimism and lessons learned as seen through the eyes of a 40 something.
Still laughing? Tunes like “Backwards Down the Number Line” and “Kill Devil Falls” echo Trey’s earlier attempts on solo dud Shine or the band’s dribble output on Round Room and Undermind - vapid, polished rockers that could achieve the same desired effect via MIDI output or karaoke machine instrumentals.
But just like Round Room or Undermind, this isn’t to say the album isn’t peppered with a few solid tunes - face melting rocker “Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan” and faded chiller “Ocelot”, the latter bearing a fairly large torch to, yes, the Dead (though no doubt unintentionally). “Time Turns Elastic” warrants merit in its complexity and, quite frankly, beautiful cascades; but don’t believe Will Hermes’ four star Rolling Stone review that this is the band’s “Terrapin.”
In all fairness, the band has departed from the fantasy and albeit confusing metaphor of their “early stuff” in favor of things that are important when you’re in your 40’s - self-reflection, assessment of purpose, pretty much being literal about everything. And, if you’re a famous and infamous musician who’s wrestled with addiction and a fan base that literally collapsed on itself, the validity of taking a time out rings all the more true. Yet this is a damaging prospect for Phish, particularly since this grounded sensibility manifests itself most thoroughly through a set of literal, boring lyrics. “Turned on some music, and then the TV / go through the pile of mail waiting for me” may hint that we’re about to stumble on something that’s not mundane (a classic Phish move, I might add), but really we’re just seeing what Trey’s been up to since the band took a break.
It’s good to come back to reality - lesson learned for the band - but the fact that these conclusions make their home on Phish’s new record, in the form that they do, is very disappointing. Phish has zero obligation to be “what they were”, and any core fan will reflect that the band’s sound made a curious but logical progression throughout their career. But if their new work is Poi Dog Pondering meets pleated pants (pleated pants NOT being a band), then you won’t see me at the party.