Inevitably, nearly every review of Phish’s just released 13th album, “Big Boat,” (JEMP Records) will at some point offer a version of the old saw “Phish doesn’t make good studio albums.” This has been written and said so often by now that it tends to be accepted as fact, surely at least partly because the same has always been said about that other iconic jam band, the Grateful Dead.
In both cases, however, it’s just untrue. Phish has at least five classic studio recordings to its credit – “A Picture of Nectar,” (1992) “Billy Breathes,” (1996) “Farmhouse,” (2000) “Undermind” (2004) and “Joy” (2009) are all adventurous and creatively produced studio albums that have endured and will continue to do so, for those willing to open themselves to their charms. (One could easily argue for the inclusion of "The Story of the Ghost," (1998) “Rift” (1993) and “Junta,” (1989) too.)
Yet the fiction remains a prevalent and pervasive one. No amount of fact-checking seems to change the minds of the pre-decided.
“Big Boat” might not be as cohesive as “Joy” and “Billy Breathes,” but it’s a remarkable album, one that continues the trend started with 2014’s excellent “Fuego,” where concise arrangements and an emotional openness dominate a mix that also includes experimentation, as well as elements of the improv-heavy prog-rock that has made the band one of the most successful live acts of the past 30 years.
This being a Phish album, it is naturally an eclectic affair, a genre-defying amalgamation of musical ideas lent conceptual continuity by lyrics that tend to focus on mortality, the transience of the human experience, and a whistling-past-the-graveyard optimism that flies in the face of the inevitability of dissolution. It’s also, Phish-haters will no doubt rejoice in pointing out, occasionally kinda goofy.
Working, as they did on “Fuego,” with producer Bob Ezrin, guitarist Trey Anastasio, keyboardist Page McConnell, bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman whittle down the magic they routinely conjure in concert to its fat-free core. There are no lengthy solos here, and only one song that exceeds the 5-minute mark, album-closer “Petrichor,” a multi-section piece in line with past triumphs like “Time Turns Elastic,” The Divided Sky” and “You Enjoy Myself.”
Several of the album's songs – “Breath and Burning,” “No Men In No Man’s Land,” “Blaze On” “Miss You” – were prominent features of last summer’s tour, and as is the band’s in-concert wont, often turned into vehicles for lengthy improvisations.
But with Ezrin at the helm, these tunes are granted a richly layered production, and because Phish’s reach has long exceeded its grasp in the vocal arrangement department – they write ambitious vocal harmonies that they rarely pull off in concert without one of the 4 singers drifting out of tune – the studio versions become something singular, something you don’t get when you see Phish live.
Witness the gorgeous unaccompanied vocals harmonies that conclude McConnell’s proggy power-pop churner “Home,” the all-in rousing chorus of “Blaze On,” and the vocal counterpoint peppering Gordon’s lovably bizarre “Waking Up Dead.”
Musically, “Big Boat” doesn’t bother with anything resembling an anchor, instead setting sail for whatever destination seems appealing at the moment – be it the Weezer-meets-the Who Fishman-helmed absurdity of album-opener “Friends,” the creaky, rustic almost-country of McConnell’s “Things People Do,” or the earnest, folk-informed acoustic balladry of Anastasio’s beautifully ruminative “Running out of Time.”
It all might seem like a random directionless cruise on first listen, but once you realize that we are moving with gravitational certainty toward the album-closing masterpiece that is “Petrichor” – one of Anastasio’s greatest compositions, hands down – it all starts to make its own twisted form of sense.
Though all four musicians are performing at the top of their game here, both individually and as a unit, the Captain on “Big Boat’s” deck is clearly Anastasio, for it is through his songs that we get a sense of what concerns Phish (and by extension, the part of the Phish audience that has been along for the whole ride and has doubtless confronted its own mortality by this point in time) in 2016, as the band members settle into their early 50s, watch their children grow into adults, take a reckoning of hardships and losses, and seek refuge in the fleeting joys offered by music and friendship.
“You’ve got one life – blaze on!” might not sound like a particularly profound manifesto, but when raging against the dying of the light has never felt like more of a necessity, it sounds profoundly life-affirming. Blaze on, guys. On stage, and in the studio.