As maligned as it is, Phish’s studio catalog does one thing really well: it provides brief but telling capsules that mark pivotal moments in the evolution of the band’s music, lives and career. Joy is unlike any other album they’ve released in terms of subject matter, since many of the songs were born of the unsavory circumstance of drug addiction, faltering friendship, and even death. It’s not an album of dreary dope-addled tales, though. It’s one of abandonment, redemption, and hope, by a band that had been declared dead.
Most fans will find Joy similar in sonic quality to 1996’s Billy Breathes, and there’s no harm in that. The two albums share a producer (Steve Lillywhite) and feature a mostly concise, shimmering batch of songs. However, Joy also shares aspects of 2002’s Round Room, in that a great deal of it was recorded in real time, and there are rough patches left in for authenticity. The same divergent calculation can be made with each album – there are shades of the tightly wound rock of Hoist, the drowsy funk-rock of Story of the Ghost, the all-encompassing stylistic structure of Farmhouse, and the calculated prog-rock of Junta. Much like Phish’s entire career, Joy is inspired in equal part by new and old.
Comprised largely of guitarist Trey Anastasio’s compositions, Joy also includes one track each from bassist Mike Gordon and keyboardist Page McConnell. Anastasio, as always, is monstrously evocative and nearly predictable in tackling the subjects we all knew he’d get around to. Gordon and McConnell are less dramatic but equally sophisticated in their contributions. The band casts dark and light atmospheres at will, channeling different eras and aspects of their history throughout the album.
The opening three songs encompass an expansive range of emotions that can be interpreted in highly personal ways. They also exhibit the band’s legendary range. “Backwards Down the Number Line” serves as the shamelessly goofy and emotional pop tune, “Stealing Time From the Faulty Plan” conjures the hazy, menacing rock delirium of Phish circa 1997-2004, and “Joy” provides heaving balladry a la 1999’s “Bug,” with its striking chorus and swaying arena-rock refrain.
Gordon’s “Sugar Shack” chugs along as only his creations can, with fantastically oblique lyrics and fussy, tempramental melodies and time signatures. After this point, the album’s wheels start to rattle a bit, and the flow of the journey gets shakier. “Ocelot,” perhaps the most natural-sounding of the album’s songs in the live setting, comes across as messy and disjointed here. “Kill Devil Falls” is quite the opposite, and its vigorous tempo is on full display, complete with a big sing-along moment at the end that sounds as huge as it should.
The album is lyrically impressive until the feathery “Light,” which contains a real groaner of a line in the second verse – “It takes a few moments of whirling around ’til your feet finally leave the ground.” That line and some of the lyrics in the compositional opus “Time Turns Elastic” are the only real missteps in the lyric department, as most of the songs have deliciously cryptic or jarringly resonant wordplay to compliment the music. Even the deceptive simplicity of McConnell’s flippantly recorded “I Been Around” will stir feelings in Phish fans who know what the band has endured, both personally and professionally, over the last decade.
Still, the album flounders to a close. The placement of “Time Turns Elastic” doesn’t compliment the record as a whole. The 13-minute multi-section song serves as neither opening fanfare, thematic centerpiece nor closing flourish, and the dreamy creation almost feels intrusive in the midst of so many soul-baring, reflective songs. The band goes for gravitas with “Twenty Years Later” in the last spot, but the song’s majestically defiant chorus falls flat in terms of atmosphere and sound quality.
A strong start, plenty of diversity, and an uneven overall experience make Joy similar to other Phish albums. But the triumphant nature of the album’s existence and the unique lyrical content within help turn it into more than just a catalog item. The songs on Joy will always remind those who hear them of the end of a decade and the rebirth of a band.
Rating: 8.4 out of 10