A word that often comes to mind while listening to the music of Phish is “adventure.” The jam band has not so much pushed boundaries in its over 30 year history as carved a wholly unique and eccentric place of sonic possibilities within them. Their style has earned them fans whose devotion rivals Deadheads as well as harsh detractors and, while their latest, ‘Big Boat,’ is unlikely to change any minds, it shows a band in its middle age still willing to evolve and take a few steps forward.
The most notable growth over previous Phish albums is in lyrical content, with the collaboratively written songs showing trademark wit but also refreshing thoughtfulness and awareness. Sadly, awareness of the present often entails certain doom and gloom sentiments, and they are present here. “In a world gone mad, there must be something more than this,” singer and guitarist Trey Anastasio pleadingly howls on ‘More.’ On the funky ‘No Men in No Man’s Land,’ he wonders, “how far can we fall if there’s nothing below?” To be determined!
But the band won’t let you get too bogged down with the harshness of reality. The darkest lyrics on the album are generally accompanied by buoyant music, making for some humorous incongruities. The reggae-tinged ‘Breath and Burning’ preaches celebration in the face of apocalypse while the comforting ‘Tide Turns’ assures that the grimmest days are bound to get better. Even the lament of ‘Miss You’ is belied by a triumphant, uplifting guitar solo that doesn’t suggest the lyric’s sorrow at losing someone as much as the joy of having had them.
In spite of this growth, ‘Big Boat’ still contains some of the usual Phish pitfalls, with a number of songs overstaying their welcome. In front of an audience is the band’s preferred setting and though the songs here are more economical than their live counterparts are bound to be, some lose steam by the end.
As the song’s occasionally meander, so too does the album as a whole, but its lack of cohesion is both a weakness and a strength. An example: in the middle of ‘Big Boat,’ the retro soul of ‘Tide Turns’ gives way to the gonzo country of ‘Things People Do,’ followed by the Middle Eastern-flavored ‘Waking Up Dead,’ the pensive folk ballad ‘Running Out of Time,’ then the propulsive funk of ‘No Men In No Man’s Land.’ It’s unfocused to the point of insanity, but enjoyably so. The quirky troubadours get a rush out of radical change even in the span of a few songs, and the feeling is infectious.
Everything comes together on the album’s closer, the thirteen-and-a-half minute ‘Petrichor,’ a classic Phish prog number with numerous movements touching on classical music, jazz, and just about everything in-between. Inevitably, certain sections are more gripping than others, but the ride is ultimately thrilling and the climax gratifying. It is organized but expansive, representing the band doing what they do best; exploring with reckless abandon and ambition. Sometimes they hit, sometimes they miss, but they consistently prove that the journey is worth more than the destination.