“There’s nothing to say / And nothing to lose.”
It’s been nearly eight months since Phish stepped to the line and unveiled nine of the ten songs that would come to make up Fuego. Lots of words have been written and lots of air expelled in the intervening time debating whether they got nothing but air or nothing but net that night. Finally, the album’s release gives us all an opportunity to release from those modes ourselves, and examine these songs anew. As they richly deserve.
I’m not sure why it took the band this long to get around to it, but I can guess. Whatever your take on the Joy songs in the live setting, it was a milestone album for Phish. It is their resurrection hymnal, their Easter Mass – both a celebration of their new life and an exhalation of relief for having stared down artistic and human mortality as brothers and prevailed (at least for now).
So how do you follow that act? Another concept album? About what collective passage or triumph, exactly? What do you have to say?
What’s your point?
[Oh, and please hurry up! The fans are waiting.]
If Joy bore witness to Phish’s urgent rebirth, Fuego bears witness to their settled maturity. They are now a band with very little if anything to prove. That state of mind has pros and cons. You’ve got permission to fall flat on your face without the fear that you won’t be able to get back up. But it can also diminish your edge, your urgency, your desire to go out there every night and deliver your audience the proper rock rogering they deserve.
Both dynamics are on display here, among many others. With the exception of a few tracks, this is not a party record. There is no “Down with Disease,” or even a “Moma Dance.” A gauze of melancholy drapes over most of the material. Fist pumping opportunities do not abound. On the other hand, Phish is most definitely taking bigger risks than they were in the Joy sessions, and some of them pay off.
The opening title track is one such risk. You have to look back at least as far as “Scents and Subtle Sounds," and “Walls of the Cave” before that, to find a Phish composition as densely proggy and with as much potential for improvisation as “Fuego.” Producer Bob Ezrin – a bona fide wizard and Badass Motherfucker – gets out of the way here, resists the temptation to gild the lily, and lets the song’s Rorschach inkblot essence emerge.
The result is absolutely spectacular. “Fuego” can be deeply appreciated from a number of different angles: its hooks, its movement, or its lyrics, which offer plenty of slack line for delving interpretation, but can just as easily be experienced viscerally, like an abstract painting. Hear it as GAF View-Master flashes of a midlife crisis gone horribly awry. Hear it as the triumph of abandon over madness. Hear it your way, but hear it, because it’s the goods.
What follows “Fuego” is a six song progression that might be described as relentlessly polite. Or purposefully sedate. Phish for waiting rooms. These songs are not bad, in fact they all have their charms. They simply tend to blend into one another.
Phish has a few cool “moment of truth” songs – from “Llama” to “Limb By Limb” – and “The Line” is a swell addition to that quiver. As a college hoops nerd, I fantasize that one day it will replace “One Shining Moment,” and I’m not convinced that wasn’t Phish’s ulterior motive for writing it.
“Devotion to a Dream” benefits quite well from the studio treatment; I just wish I could put my finger on what it reminds me of once and for all. The elegant “Halfway to the Moon” boasts a chord progression that goes down like a complex whiskey, revealing new flavors ever so subtly as it rolls past your tongue and into your throat. Gun to my head, it’s my second favorite track on the album. Superb.
“Winterqueen,” a delicate ballad in the vein of “Anything But Me," marks Fuego’s energetic low ebb, but suddenly we are awakened by new sounds: horns! We’ll hear these horns a few times more, but here they herald the start of the climb upward toward the album’s climax. Densely layered keyboards lend a bit of gravity to the pop confection of “Sing Monica," and “555” serves to remind us that Phish still has a dangerous rhythm section. More horns and a cascade of gospel voices lift this joint right over the top – so convincingly that it’s already hard to imagine the song without them.
“Waiting All Night” is eerie and impossible to ignore, like one of those hyper-produced 10CC breakup songs from the mid-70s. Phish paints something here that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen: a lingering, cool, but intensely psychedelic portrait of distilled sadness. Yes, there are reasons not to love this tune on paper, but it is compelling through headphones.
Though it earns bonus points for its goofball ambition, the first half of “Wombat” suffers from a dearth of musicality. It’s not the first time the band has sounded as if they’re satirizing themselves or taking the piss, but it sounds the way an ill-fitting suit looks. The second half (“post explosion” – those who’ve listened will know what I’m talking about) is viral and greasy but over all too soon. It will be interesting to see what direction this tune goes over the next tour or two.
“Wingsuit” makes a much better ending than it did a beginning, back when it was a “title track.” The song is, after all, a benediction – an exhortation to cast aside fear and live fully. Trey’s concluding solo is nothing short of breathtaking, and a graceful denouement to it all.
Of all the Phish fans I know, precious few regularly listen to the band’s studio output. Fuego may not do much to change that, but maybe that’s beside the point. Maybe the point is illustrated by the album’s cover, which depicts a team of giant old-timey baseball players warming themselves around a thermonuclear fireball.
Or maybe there is no point. And maybe that’s okay.