Just as Phish seemed to perfect their approach to studio albums with 1996's Billy Breathes, they were concurrently struggling with how to move the improvisational element of their music forward. 1996 saw the band attempting to move toward a more rhythmic and groove based style, with less emphasis on the complicated, dynamic lead soloing of guitarist Trey Anastasio or pianist/keyboardist Page McConnell and toward a more group improvisational based style, giving equal weight to bassist Mike Gordon and drummer Jon Fishman. With the Halloween '96 performance of Remain In Light by the Talking Heads, the band got ever closer to reaching this ideal. It wasn't until the band's late winter tour of Europe in '97 that this 'sound' fully blossomed, as partially captured on the live album Slip, Stitch and Pass. At this point, Trey dropped the mini-percussion kit he had employed during longform jams from roughly Fall '95 onward and laid back in the jams by playing funky, rhythmic accents on wah-wah enhanced guitar or creating psychedelic loops. Mike, in turn, adopted a five-string bass that gave a more clearly defined, upper register tone that made him much more audible. All told, throughout '97 and into '98, the band were having one of their most fruitful live eras while quietly recording a studio album that promised to transfer this new live sound to CD.
The result wasn't what people expected.
Story of the Ghost is very different from Billy Breathes, and the weight of expectations after critics loved that album led many to denounce Ghost as indulgent tripe. This disappointment isn't without merit. Story of the Ghost is somewhere between the tight focus of Billy Breathes and the variety and sprawling mess of earlier studio albums. Meanwhile, because their live improvisational style had found a middle ground between rewarding/complicated jams and danceable/psychedelic fun, many expected their next studio album would be experimental and very different from what had preceded it. Here was their chance to release not an American Beauty but a Head Hunters, a Larks' Tongues In Aspic, an Anthem of the Sun, a Dark Side of the Moon. In fact, The Siket Disc, a set of studio improvisations and experiments first released in 1999, was recorded during the same era as what would become The Story of the Ghost. It's a fascinating document of the studio side of Phish's '97/'98 style and I'll get to it soon.
As for Story of the Ghost itself, well, when you put aside expectations for another Billy Breathes or wishes for an experimental release, it's a satisfying studio effort. On certain days, I would even go so far as to say it's great. The album is hard to get a handle on initially because it's funky and fun but also shot through with introspection and darkness. The surreal, dreamlike 'Fikus' is an underrated gem that was only played live a handful of times, while 'Frankie Says' is a mellow meditation on one's place in the world. Then there's the lament for an anti-social/introverted friend ('Brian and Robert') and the song about how the worst thing about Hell is that "you could be there and not even know" ('Shafty'). Counterbalancing these are the circus love letter 'Roggae', the booty shakin' 'The Moma Dance', and the Talking Heads-esque rocker 'Birds of a Feather.' I like the contrasting tones of the album though I wish they would've dropped the irritating/goofy prog workout of 'Guyute', which doesn't fit the album at all.
There exists a three CD set of outtakes for Story of the Ghost and while none of that suggests the band ever intended to record something like Billy Breathes or their version of the experimental albums posited above, I have always held to my initial impression, that this album is a bit of a wasted opportunity. I suppose Phish always felt they should leave the long-form improv to the live stage, but releases like The Siket Disc make me think they've got a lot of interesting non-major-label/radio friendly music in the vaults. What's more, the few songs or scraps on those outtakes reveal a band capable of short, minor pieces that if released alongside the Ghost and Siket Disc tracks could've made for a fascinating-but-messy double album. Anyway, 'Fikus' and 'End of Session' from Ghost are the sort of 'pleasant surprise' studio-exclusive tracks that make the album unique and worth hearing, along with the reprise of the 'Ghost' lyrics at the end of 'The Moma Dance.'
But those are all my expectations and wishes for the album and one should judge it by what it tries to do, not what I think it should/could have been. Story of the Ghost is a fine studio album. Not quite as good as Farmhouse or Billy Breathes, but still worth buying.