Just after the Fare Thee Well shows this Summer, a spirited debate took place online on the respective lyrics of The Grateful Dead and Phish. The usual tropes and stereotypes were of course trotted out: Phish’s lyrics are and have always been silly whereas The Dead’s lyrics are meaningful and connective. Just a few short weeks later, Phish was in Bend, Oregon gracing us with a host of new material and some terrific new lyrics by Trey and Tom. We’re loving the new songs and thought perhaps dissecting the lyrics, something that despite my own predilection towards writing poetry, I realized I haven’t ever really focused on, except for some brief commentary after Wingsuit.
With that in mind, it’s been clear for some time, since Joy, that Phish’s lyrical tendencies have become far more mature. And that is not to say that their earliest lyrics were somehow not mature, in fact, I believe the opposite. What are to some Phish’s silliest lyrics are my personal favorites. I am guessing that I am not alone in this. Many of us likely cannot imagine “Reba, Cavern, David Bowie” or “YEM” being paired with anything other than cork, musty grime and UB40.
I am a believer that every successful band writes and uses the lyrics that their music requires. Phish’s earliest compositions were often so complex that the lyrics were going to be secondary whether the band wanted them to be or not. In comparison, many of the Dead’s earliest songs, taken from Blues and Jugbands, folk and even top-40 songs, were far simpler. I am not saying that anything the Dead did were easy, but their most technically complex compositions like “Terrapin, Bird Song, Scarlet Begonias,” all debuted in the early to mid 70's. Of course, the Dead were doing a lot of experimentations elsewhere, see “Dark Star’s” 1968 debut, although it certainly had a long way to go before becoming the all-inclusive song we all now know.
“You Enjoy Myself, Slave, Fluffhead, Skippy the Wondermouse, Antelope” were all in regular rotation as early as 1987. All love to Pigpen but he wasn’t going to compose “It’s Ice.”
Because Phish is not a band that works on anyone else’s timeline, and most certainly not a record companies, who may want their acts to punch out an album every 18 months or so, they only press play when they want to.
Especially since Wingsuit/ Fuego, and now with these most recent batch, Phish has once again reversed their process. The band is to record a new album in Nashville some time this year as well. Choosing the live setting to debut songs, reworking them and refining them in real time on the road, and only then hitting the studio just after a tour, when their chops and familiarity with the material is at its highest ebb, is a traditional Phish move.
Beginning the song with a chorus is always an interesting choice, and for this mellow, gritty song, characterized by Trey’s descending melody and terrifically lush lyrics, we have an instant winner. It’s already become something of a tour mystery; “Where did Mercury go?” This question was partially answered this weekt when Phish reworked the song during their sound check in Nashville, so it’s clearly coming back. We hope.
Lyrically, this song falls clearly into the mythical/ fantasy camp, seemingly alluding to the astrological phenomenon known as “Mercury in Retrograde” when our sister planet Mercury speeds past the sun, kicking up cosmic dust and supposedly creating all sorts of emotional and creative issues for us mortals on earth. Well, you mortals…
The Greek God Mercury was a messenger god, fleet footed, and with winged sandals. “With wings on your feet” perhaps he is swift enough to obscure time, making days longer than years, shortening orbits around the Sun.
Ancient stargazers thought that Mercury was actually moving backwards, but science has proven that because Mercury’s orbit is shorter than the Earths, and far closer to the Sun, several times a year it can seem as if Mercury is in fact reversing course. The order in the Chaos?
The catchy chorus shades the rather ambivalent content of the song, pairing a proactive call to action “tonight’s the night” with the unfortunate missing of the singer’s subway stop. If only the stupid universe would stop obstructing me, I’d be able to fulfill my potential!
Here we have Mercury in Retrograde as the cosmic, perhaps spiritual force, obstructing our desires and intentions. I find the song to have a strong agnosticism underpinning it. It’s not “G-d” or a God causing us trouble down here, just rather the particular architecture of the Universe. “If I can just seize the day.” But the singer cannot, forgetting “what it is I meant to say,” a particularly torturous problem for a singer to have. That agnosticism peeks through again, as the singer describes the heavens as “the great machine/ that never began and will never end.” Neil Degrasse Tyson would be proud. The machine is great, even though its not real.
Later, we are confronted with a strange chorus that seems to defy the vernacular of the song calling out to the ever expanding universe of Phish lyrics: Winterqueen and Steam come to mind. Who is the “Red Queen” and why is her tomb “painted in Vermillion.” Why is she dead? What did she die of? Is she a star that long ago burned out but who’s scarlet light still shines out? Isn’t Mars the red planet and not mercury?
The real red queen, Margaret Beaufort, was mother to England’s Henry XII. There’s also a popular book from the 70's called The Red Queen that is all about the priorities of sexual evolution.
The Water Star is likely Earth as our planet is over 75% covered in water, and it is our song, “ singing its silver melody” is our creation, the song that humans put out into the sky, in our forever calling out to the cosmos, are we alone or are we apart of some strange design? Does our art even matter? Does this song I am singing have any listener? Phish’s “Mercury” may not have the answers we seek, just another message in bottle floating in one of our vast oceans here, but either way its going to keep bobbing along, looking for an ear to fill.