After listening to Joy, one has to wonder whether hardcore Phish-heads, who've stuck with the band through thick and thin and bought literally millions of concert tickets, will be impressed by the band's 11th studio album. It is the group's first studio outing in five years -- a reunion album. You can ask, but Phish fans almost always prefer their live shows and albums to the studio dates (echoing of course, the first legendary jam band, the Grateful Dead). The answer? Maybe. Joy was produced by Steve Lillywhite, who also helmed 1996's Billy Breathes. He's familiar enough with Phish to be able to get inside their sound, and to try to challenge their preconceptions without tinkering too much with the process of creation. Apparently, he's also a slave driver. The reason? The labyrinthine track "Time Turns Elastic," which clocks in at over 13 minutes, took 278 takes! The tune, easily the best thing here, is far more a constructed prog rock opus than jam journey. The band -- guitarist Trey Anastasio, keyboardist Page McConnell, drummer Jon Fishman, and bassist Mike Gordon -- recorded live in the studio, so it took some time. The track was originally constructed as a full orchestral suite (and indeed will be performed with the New York Philharmonic at selected concerts). The reason the track works so well is that despite its many twists and turns musically, it keeps its various song forms, even as they flow into one another. Anastasio wrote it with poet/lyricist Tom Marshall. Gordon contributes a rather weighty reggae-jazz tune in "Sugar Shack" -- some might say it's heavy-handed, but the tune itself is simple and catchy, so it works.
"Backwards Down the Number Line," which opens the set, is one of the more straightforward things Anastasio has written with Marshall, and reflects on gratitude despite the messes and sorrows in his life -- much of the album is about his long struggle with dope and his sister Kristy passing away from cancer (check "Stealing Time from the Faulty Plan"). "Ocelot" could have been a Grateful Dead track; it contains all the legendary band's tropes, from vocal harmonies to a strolling country shuffle song structure to Anastasio aping Jerry Garcia's guitar tone on the solo. At the end of the tune Phish add a lyrical and melodic nod to the Beatles' "Dear Prudence." There is a straight-ahead rockin' boogie number in "Kill Devil Falls," an interesting take on recovery. The title track, also written by Anastasio and Marshall, is simply beautiful. It begins as a shimmering ballad, sparsely arranged, and becomes a straightforward rock song, but being Phish, there are a few left turns in the mix. Joy sounds like Phish are thrilled to have a second chance and feel no pressure to do anything but make music on their own terms -- it is issued independently on the band's own JEMP imprint. They sound more focused than on any of their ten previous studio offerings. Certainly, what's here is not for everybody, but this jumpy, well-constructed little set may even get Phish fans excited. As reunion sets go, this one is a winner. [A pair of deluxe editions of Joy have also been released. One is called Joy Box and includes a 180-gram LP version along with the CD; a Super Deluxe Joy Box includes a DVD, a hardbound book, and a complete second album called Party Time in the bundle. These are only available from the band's website.]