Thought Out on the Page: The Story of the Steam

After all these years, Tom Marshall has finally told us the story of the ghost.  Ghosts, that is—it turns out there are two of them.  And the story is actually not about the ghost; it’s about the journey of becoming one.  It’s about the place in between person and soul, living and dead, love and loss.  It’s elusive, ephemeral and transitive—like steam.

Debuting in Blossom this summer and then once more at Merriweather, Steam is the latest Tom Marshall and Trey composition and it is significant for a number of reasons.  For one, it marks a clear departure from the starkly personal lyricism of Joy and Party Time.  The baroque fantasy imagery is unique to the phish cannon, though some of the images may be familiar.  Songs like The Horse and 46 days contain trace amounts of the same imagery, as does All Along the Watchtower, Dire Wolf and many songs by prog-rockers like Genesis and Yes.

It was no surprise to learn that Tom actually wrote the song while working on a long-form fantasy novel (which I believe he is still completing).  Steam feels like the work of a songwriter who is maturing into a storyteller and enjoys flexing his narrative muscles. The song is a linear story with a clear beginning, middle and end.  It lacks any of Tom’s signature abstractions or philosophical ruminations.  It is, as the cliché goes, a simple story well told.

Most Phish songs, even the narrative ones, are like scenes or chapters instead of fully formed stories.  A song like PYITE, for example, is all about the moment where the hero vows his revenge on Wilson.  There is some backstory filled in, but the conflict and resolution are left untold.  The audience, as we are meant to do in many Phish songs, must fill in the blanks.

In Steam there is strikingly little to interpret and nothing left out, especially for a Phish song.  It is a straightforward, classical tale.  Steam has five verses that serve as the five acts of the story.  The first verse is a classic introduction to the story’s main elements: A hero/narrator, a lovely maiden singing into the night, a tower in the distance, wolves down below and steam.

There is the tower
like a solitary flower
standing in the snow
as the wolves all wait below
and you’re walking on the ledge
throwing bread crusts off the edge
as you sing in voice so clear
and my name I think I hear
concealed within the theme
then it disappears as steam

In verse two, the hero grows captivated by the maiden’s song.  However, he is blocked by the pack of wolves surrounding the tower.  Seemingly overcome by love, he begins to disintegrate and melt into the snow.  His body dies, while a steam rises into the sunlight.

And I’m standing far below
watching wolves you seem to know
as your voice still carries on
in your never-ending song
and my blood begins to boil
and my bones melt into oil
hissing liquid in the snow
as my body sinks below
and a ripple sends a beam
of sunlight dancing through the steam

In the third verse we find that the steam is actually the hero’s soul, which, now freed, can journey forward to meet his love in the tower.  However, as he flies toward her, he finds that a weapon-carrying horseman is also approaching.  The horseman is so fearful that he scares away not only the maiden, but the wolves as well.

My now unfettered soul
has direction I control
to your tower I draw near
but do I see a trace of fear?
the approaching sound of hooves
now scatters all the wolves
you briefly watch the horseman ride
then you quickly run inside
the rider’s weapons gleam
while the horse’s nostrils steam

In the forth verse, the hero is confronted by a crucial decision.  He can allow the horseman to “set his love free”, or intervene to try and save her.  After seeing her terror he decides to save her, but he is too late.  The horseman kills her and her soul rises to join his.

There’s no time to reflect, who
is this man? I must protect you
in the rider’s hand I see
he holds your prison’s only key
he glances up and glares
and then he starts to climb the stairs
I can tell you’re terrified
so I quickly go inside
but then I hear a fateful scream
and your soul joins mine as steam

In the last verse, the lovers fly off together for many seasons.   However, in a final twist, the maiden abruptly decides to leave the hero and return back to earth, to be with the wolves.  The hero is now alone forever and left imagining the maiden’s song returning to him through the steam.

We escaped the dreadful night
and as lovers soared in flight
blissful weeks turned into seasons
but one day without a reason
or goodbye you flew below
back to the animals you know
now you forever sing your song
with the wolves where you belong
now quite alone I often dream
I hear you singing through the steam

The steam that surrounds

The story as a whole has a very mythological structure to it.  The successive components of conquering death, transforming into otherworldly beings and ultimately suffering for eternity make up many classic tragic fables.  At the same time, some of Tom’s favorite themes are present and accounted for.  There are the transitive properties of life and nature, the sardonic eye toward romance and, of course, the repeated use of water imagery, in this case steam.

As it turns out, even the way the song came together was a departure from the norm.  As opposed to their normal back and forth, Tom simply emailed the lyrics to Trey and he composed the music.  The first time Tom heard the song was when the rest of us did.

It’s hard to say exactly what Steam may portend for Phish’s future.  It has been somewhat shocking to see only one song debuted so far this summer, especially with the announcement of a new album to be recorded in the fall.  But if we only get one new song, Steam has enough going for it musically and lyrically to keep fans buzzing (and that’s to say nothing of it’s innovative use of Kuroda’s smoke machines, both visually and aurally).

If Steam is an aberration, it will go down as one of the more beloved excursions in the band’s modern history.  But if Tom and Trey continue to write under the influence of Tom’s newfound narrative and fantasy influences, there is no saying exactly what the future may hold.  It’s hard to see where Summer of ’89, Show of Life or even Pigtail would fit on an album with songs like Steam, but I could definitely see Page’s beloved Halfway to the Moon melding in nicely.  Perhaps we will learn more this August?  Either way, fans will certainly want more Steam before the band goes into hibernation.