Billy Breathes was and remains a sticky point of contention among some Phish fans. It was such a focused, disciplined, and majestic album, unapologetically pop, that fans had a hard time accepting that this was Phish. Certainly the first time I heard the album I was astonished at what I was hearing--here was a band who I mainly knew of as the guys who deftly married playfulness (in lyrics and music) to virtuosic improvisation, and now they had recorded an album that was like a love note to the AOR of the 60s and 70s. Hoist may have been a stab at a mainstream audience but it wasn't fully committed to being an album that anyone could appreciate and came off as a collection of disparate songs. And yet, I could see the point of the hardcore Phish fan, viewing this album with bittersweet detachment: where were the jams, man?? Why such a serious album??
In the two years between the release of Hoist and Billy Breathes, the band truly began their rise to becoming one of the biggest bands in the world. Through '94 and '95 the improvisational aspect of the band began to match the energy and creativity of the setlists, covers, and segues that had always been a trademark. Remember, too, that in August of '95 Jerry Garcia died, effectively ending the Grateful Dead and causing a healthy portion of that fanbase to seek out other up and coming jam bands to follow around. After an incredible fall tour and a legendary New Year's Eve show to wrap up 1995, Phish spent the first part of 1996 recording a new album. A few of the songs from Billy Breathes had been performed in '95, material that the band struggled to play live in a satisfactory manner. Influenced, possibly, by their performances on Halloween '94 and '95 of The White Album by the Beatles and Quadrophenia by The Who, respectively, the songs were more nuanced and serious than before. I also get the impression that Phish finally took the recording studio seriously and wanted to make something that would stand the test of time, an album that felt 'of a whole' and flowed together logically as a piece of music instead of a assortment of songs that were blueprints for live performances.
Indeed, the main appeal of Billy Breathes to me, as a hardcore Phish fan, is that--whether we want to admit it or not--Phish were never very good at performing these kind of songs live. Well, that's not entirely fair. They weren't good at performing ballads and songs that required disciplined, immaculate vocals and harmonies live. 'Waste', 'Talk', and 'Billy Breathes' are all songs that sound best on the album because their greatness rests on restraint and emotional resonance. Fans may have highly emotional reactions to certain songs of Phish, but they aren't well known for their ballads in the way the Grateful Dead were. I try to avoid comparing the two bands because it summons angry debaters, but when you listen to Jerry Garcia sing 'Sugaree' or 'Stella Blue', you feel it. As much as I love Phish, I only get that when I hear the album versions. This was the first time Phish were writing ballads that felt "real", and the emotion behind them was "honest." Indeed, Billy Breathes is their most "serious" album and I think that was a problem for some fans. The other 'problem' with Billy Breathes is that Phish had a bad habit of playing 'Prince Caspian' and 'Character Zero' into the ground over the course of tours. These two songs make fan lists of "songs you never want to hear live again" and I think the addition of "live" to that is a crucial distinction. These songs work so well in the pacing and flow of Billy Breathes but became infuriating 'late set or encore' material live. Whenever I'm listening to a show and they bust out 'Caspian' late into the second set, I can't help but think they're trying to re-capture the magic of the way the song flows out of the 'Swept Away'/'Steep' sequence on the album.
When critics use terms like 'pacing', 'flow', and 'sequencing', they refer to albums that do them well like Billy Breathes. There is a logical progression and emotionally resonant quality to this album I can't quite define, the way it hits the ballads at just the right time and alternates heavier fare like 'Character Zero' and 'Theme From The Bottom' with the airier 'Waste' and 'Train Song.' The way the aforementioned 'Swept Away'/'Steep'/'Prince Caspian' sequence forms a brilliant closing sequence that reminds one of the more lucid segue chains of live Phish. Then there's the excellent and subtle use of acoustic guitar throughout; the extremely warm production of the album that just begs for a release on vinyl; the way the album sounds timeless, as if it could've existed in 1974 or 2004. There really is just something about Billy Breathes that appeals to even those who don't like Phish or don't think they do. It creates a special atmosphere and feel for the listener, reminding me of late nights spent writing in my journal or staring at the fireplace in my parents' house while enjoying a bottle of wine.
Every great band or artist has that one album where everything comes together and they either purposely or accidentally find themselves suddenly getting rave reviews and selling far more copies than they had before. Billy Breathes was that album for Phish, and I urge non-fans to give it a try while hardcore fans should listen to it with fresh ears as a discrete piece of music.