Music Review: Phish rock out with energy and urgency on their 16th studio album, 'Evolve'

There might never be a more apt title for a Phish album than “Evolve,” the jam masters’ 16th studio album and first in over four years.

Just as this boundary-pushing quartet has progressed over four-plus decades by fusing rock, jazz, bluegrass and other freewheeling sounds, “Evolve” has a familiarly amorphous feel.

Because Phish’s fiercely dedicated fan base is rooted in the experiential immersion of the live shows — no two nights are the same — this actual album drop could be considered an afterthought compared to other bands. Many of the 12 tracks on “Evolve” have been in rotation at their shows throughout the last few years. More than half of them were played in April over their four-night stay at The Sphere in Las Vegas.

Still, “Evolve” starts strong enough to hook both a Phish skeptic and the diehard who’s been to two dozen shows. The bouncy opener, “Hey Stranger,” rides a catchy staccato beat and minor-key melody into a vintage jam by frontman/guitarist Trey Anastasio and drummer Jon Fishman; it’s easy to imagine this one peppering a sold-out Madison Square Garden performance.

Anastasio has said in recent interviews that he believes the band is just hitting its stride as the members move into their 60s, and this album gives plenty of reason to keep it going.

The energy and urgency persist throughout the first few songs, from “Hey Stranger” into the bluesy “Oblivion” and then onto the title track. The latter is the ideal opportunity for the uninitiated listener to join the fun, with its sweet melody, pulsating beat driven by bass guitarist Mike Gordon, and lyrical beauty.

“First came the light, then came the sound/Then came the worlds that could never slow down,” Anastasio sings. “Then came the people with problems and hope/That don’t mean a thing, if they just knew the scope.”

“A Wave of Hope” is ‘70s-style rock with space for Page McConnell to pound on the keys amid racing guitar riffs. That’s the era of music the band grew up with along the East Coast, after all — the freewheeling foursome formed in 1983 at the University of Vermont.

The pace downshifts a bit with “Pillow Jets,” a track that winds into cacophonic chaos — the same that a showgoer could blissfully drift away in, or that another listener might lose interest in.

“Life Saving Gun” gives the guys another four-plus minutes to let loose and rock out. It also checks the box for the band’s affinity for paradoxical titles.

“Mercy” is a sleepy and syrupy closer, an anticlimactic finish to the album. “I am water/Dancing in the light,” Anastasio sings. “Moving in darkness with the setting sun.”

But it’s hard to fault this humble band for feeling sentimental at this point in a fascinating career — one marked with an unwavering following despite no big hits.


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