I used to be obsessed with Phish. I once responded to a $1000 cash offer for my ticket to their NYE ’02 show with a terse yet decisive, “No fucking way, bro.” I once drove 12 hours to see a weekend of Phish shows in northern Maine and competed in the attendant Runaway Jim 5K for a chance to get onstage. I still know what YEM, PYITE, TMWSIY and DWD are acronyms for and who Jeff Holdsworth is. I’ve seen 25-30 Phish shows in the last 15 years. And, to a lot of people, that still makes me a newbie who doesn’t know shit.
I point that out merely to say that, while I’m a fan of Phish, I’m not now nor ever was at a depth that many, many people are. The level of sustained devotion Phish has inspired over that last 30-odd years is hard to fathom, much less replicate, in today’s world of digital infinity. A mix of devoted weekend warriors and nomadic tribespersons, all buying or selling grilled cheese sandwiches for a buck (pre-Goldman collapse, anyway), Sammy Smith’s (1 for $3, 2 for $5) continue to show up by the tens of thousands anywhere/everywhere they play.
This is precisely the reason why Phish have been and always will be dismissed offhand by many (including, possibly, most people reading this). While a lot of Phish fans do not conform to the stereotypes that are the anathema of cool for young, urban, liberal, internet hipsterdom, many in fact do. HACKY-SACK AND FRISBEES. WHITE PERSON DREADLOCKS/TRUSTAFARIANS. KICKING A DOOB WHILE DANCING WITH A HULA HOOP AROUND YOUR WAIST. This is scary stuff, people.
To dismiss an artist because of such window dressing is bullshit, I think, but it still occurs. It certainly influences attitudes towards the band itself and how people approach its music. Do they have long songs? Yes. Are they hippies with synthesizers? No. As evidenced in their late-’90s-era documentary Bittersweet Motel (from director Todd Phillips, the man who brought you all three The Hangovers!), Phish’s intrinsic Phishiness is something the band has struggled both to get away from and embrace, often simultaneously.
With all that, here comes Fuego, Phish’s 12th studio album in 25 years. It finds both their strengths and weaknesses still thriving all these years on, the very things that have kept them appealingly idiosyncratic and made them increasingly anachronistic. If you are wary of too many guitar solos, you’re getting hit with a ten-minute punch to the dome straight out the gate; if you are excited for a lot of guitar solos, you’re blissfully rolling along with a ten-minute opening jam that switches tempos and grooves on a dime. If you love lyrics like “The Prince of Silence walks below/inside a cave of ice and snow,” you get them; if you hate lyrics like “The Prince of Silence walks below/inside a cave of ice and snow,” you also get them. And so forth. Personally, I enjoy it more when they break out of the more-or-less classic rock wheelhouse, like the Billy Breathes-y “Waiting All Night” or even the goofy “Wombat.” It certainly all sounds crisp sonically, but might it be more interesting to work with a producer who’s never recorded a guitar solo before rather than someone who cut his teeth working with Alice Cooper in the early ‘70s?
I first came to Phish in high school. (When else?) For a teenaged white male in central New Jersey who didn’t feel particularly angry about anything, or self-identifiably “cool,” they allowed me to feel like I had A Thing that connected me to a larger social, cultural and geographic world/community. (This was pre-Facebook, LOL.) Even if I grew apart from that world or slipped out a sidehatch at some point since then, I still love it and find it comforting that not only does it still exist but is still flourishing. If you’re someone who thinks middle-aged, medium-rich white men have nothing culturally to say to you (which is a perfectly valid opinion!), then, duh, you’re not going to like this band, much less this record. But if you like what Phish does, and they do it very well, you probably will. I think what I hope the most is that Phish still enjoy being themselves, because so many people enjoy them being Phish.
Somewhere this summer, many people will buy their first lot shirt or see Chris Kuroda’s lights for the first time or hold up their print-at-home ticket during “Golgi Apparatus.” And while they probably won’t enjoy “the greatest musical experience in rock history,” it will probably be pretty chill. To those people, whoever you are nowadays, I say godspeed. Complete that full hack for me.