I’ve got to say, if you’re a fan of Phish during the 3.0 era, you’ve got it good.
Trey’s lean, mean and clean. The band is playing with a dedication to their craft not seen around these parts since the early 1990s. Their two year comeback has kept phans on their toes and has seen four full fledged tours, two holiday runs, two Halloween albums and a festival. Most importantly, Phish 3.0 has brought us a heaping batch of new tunes still trying to find their place amongst the Phish canon. None of Phish’s 3.0 accomplishments signify a hungry band more than the new material and I think that bodes well for things to come. Additionally, two of Phish 3.0’s most talked about tunes, Time Turns Elastic and Backwards Down The Number Line, represent dual pinnacles of Trey’s songwriting career.
Each song represents one half of the duality that has always been at play in the world of Phish, the complex composition versus the feel-good rocker. In many ways, Trey has been writing these two songs for decades. Backwards Down The Number Line is the newest incarnation of a songwriting muse that’s produced tunes like Sample in a Jar, Heavy Things, AC/DC Bag and other sing-able head-bobbers. Likewise, Time Turns Elastic is the latest in a lineage of Phish songs that stretches back to the earliest of Trey’s songs like Run Like an Antelope, You Enjoy Myself and Divided Sky. They each serve different purposes, while each meeting established setlist needs.
While these two songs may have little in common with each other, they rest atop two of the strongest pillars in Phish’s foundation. Now, I know that might strike some as sacrilege, but hear me out as to why I think each tune can be considered a pinnacle of Phish’s catalog.
I’ll start with Backwards Down The Number Line because it seems fitting to do so. If I was trying to sway someone who’d never seen Phish into giving the band a listen, I’d start here. Simple, accessible and catchy, Backwards Down the Number Line can pull in even the most disaffected listener the first time around. With its driving beat, hook-laden lyrics and anthemic guitar solo Backwards is a song that is, quite simply, easy to love. For phans like myself whose Phish obsession has followed them out of adolescence and into the so called real world, the lyrical theme presented in Backwards hits close to home. A forlorn poem from Tom Marshall to his pal Trey during the darkest periods of Trey’s substance abuse issues, Backwards Down The Number Line’s lyrics ring true for anyone who has seen friendships sustained in the face of life’s many ups and downs.
“You decide what it contains, how long it goes but this remains, the only rule is it begins. All my friends, go backwards down the number line”.
Those words really strike me and seem representative of what Phish means in the context of so many of my friendships. It really is mind-blowing. My crew of one-time Phish kids now full-time professionals, are now scattered across the entire country and socioeconomic spectrum. However, like all great art, one listen to Backwards Down the Number Line can destroy all those hand-built divisions and put us all in one place again. The relationships we create around Phish often trump our relationship with Phish, which is how it should be. Backwards takes that thought and delivers it perfectly, nestled along with a great tune.
Now, on to Time Turns Elastic. I know, I know, many of you hate it. Deplore it. You want to make the phrase “Getting TTE’d” synonymous with getting your time wasted. The only question I have is: why? What separates this song from the rest of Phish’s heavily composed pieces? Some people scoff at the lyrics, but since when has that been an accepted criticism of Phish’s music. There are so many great songs, with so many weird lyrics I wouldn’t even know where to start.
I would argue, it’s newness. That’s it. It’s the new song and, unlike BDTNL, it takes some getting used to. An experience which doesn’t seem too different from when I was first getting into Phish. Back in the halcyon days of the analog cassette tape, in a time before track markers, it took me quite awhile to figure out where You Enjoy Myself started and ended. With few lyrics to grab onto and I often found myself wondering, “what’s going on here?” It took awhile to get used to. Once I’d broken down the walls I’d constructed for myself around music, it was easy, but that process took awhile. Now it’s, “fifteen minutes, four time signatures, no lyrics, no problem!” That wasn’t always the case.
The hatred directed at Time Turns Elastic is also startling to me because, for much of my time following Phish, the phans have lamented why there weren’t more new songs like Time Turns Elastic. In fact, as I came of age as a Phish phan in the mid-to- late nineties the only new contribution to the “big composed Phish song” category was Guyute. That song had a lot of growing pains before being placed along the other big songs in the Phish catalog, yet people kept crying, “Where’s the next Bowie? Where’s the next YEM?”. It’s here, and it’s called Time Turns Elastic.
I, for one, love the song. I love that it was Phish’s first release after their hiatus. I love that it was a thirteen and a half minute “single”. Most importantly, I love where that song goes when I listen to it. Like many of Phish’s tunes, Time Turns Elastic is a series of mini-compositions strung together to perform as a suite of music. Part one, part two and part three may seem disjointed at first, but when you get to the end it all adds up to something bigger. The rock and roll explosion at the ending of Time Turns Elastic is one of Phish’s finest moments, which is why I’m amazed that it’s received with such disinterest. Sure, it takes some time to get there, but isn’t that part of the fun that Phish teaches us? Sometimes you have to jump on and go for the ride, not knowing where it’ll end, but having faith the big payoff will make the journey worth it.
Lyrically, I also think Time Turns Elastic has a lot to offer. I’ll admit, I cringe a little bit everyt ime I hear the “submarine” line, but that’s only because a ship underground would be “subterranean” and I’m a stickler for that sort of thing. The rest of the time, Time Turns Elastic perfectly sums up the Phish experience. When you think of the phrase, “In and out of focus, time turns elastic”, doesn’t that describe the relationships between the listener and Phish’s music? We’ve all seen shows that flew by in what seemed like seconds or seemed to stretch out long past the barriers of space and time. That experience you feel when you’re mid-jam with ten thousand of your closest friends just can’t be captured, but I think the lyrics in TTE go a long way towards evoking it.
I’ve had people tell me that Time Turns Elastic kills the energy at a show, but I’m not buying that, either. We, the phans, bring the energy at a show and we can take it away. Fluffhead would kill the same energy if half the audience sat down or went to take a piss. The only difference is that we’ve put in the work it takes to learn to love Fluffhead already (or YEM or Bowie or Divided Sky… you get the drift) and aren’t yet ready to put in that work for Time Turns Elastic. It’s a shame too, because I think a lot of the Time Turns Elastic hating comes from the viral spread of jaded-vet disorder, but that’s a topic for another column.
I’ll never tell you what songs to like or dislike, obviously that task falls to you, the individual listener. I just happen to think that Backwards Down The Number Line and Time Turns Elastic are Trey reaching the apex of a songwriting mountain he started climbing three decades ago. But you don’t have to take it from me, I’m just a guy who’s pretty fond of Summer of ’89.