Look, I hated it the first two listens. By number #3, though, I had written to Wally, “‘Waiting All Night’ is growing on me but it still sounds too much like a Sting song for my tastes.” And I don’t mean when Sting was with the Police, either, damnit. (That dude rules.) Wally got me to notice the delicacy and restraint, and I was already admiring the bravery of the song’s refusal of pyrotechnics and virtuosity—this from a band well-defined by both qualities, for good and ill—in favor of a sustained groove. Mike Gordon’s loping, melodic bass defines and directs the song. Page McConnell’s keyboards provide the surging thrust, with Trey Anastasio’s guitar adding muted colors and accents; this is the polar opposite of Phish’s regular sound. Jon Fishman’s drums, mostly hi-hats and snares and rimshots hit with brushes, offer an insistent but quiet beat. The lyrics are forlorn and direct, the vocals clean and vital and without irony. In many ways, this reminds me of the improvisatory sound the band found around 1997, that emphasized adding and subtracting layers instead of buildups to onrushing crescendos. Anyone wanting a huge climax here will be disappointed, though the ache of the singing gives enough of that to me. (Trey’s voice, in particular, is in good, heartfelt form.) Anyone wanting a straightforward ballad will be weirded out by the odd effects—slurs, keyboard effects, digital delays, atonal squiggles—here. Anyone expecting a long jam will shrug at the relatively simple groove, from which the band doesn’t veer for the song’s five minutes. I see all the aforementioned constituents who will be disappointed with the song, which begs the question: Who is this song for? Who does Phish expect to please with this one? Well, after 30 years—with some hiccups—Phish has earned the right to please itself. In doing so, “Waiting All Night” has seeped into me, and I think I get it. This isn’t perhaps a song for dancing but it is a song for dreaming or remembering long-lost slow dances with a former partner. It achieves the intricate, brainy emotionality of headphones disco (see: Massive Attack, Portishead, The Sea and Cake) that, somehow, I can’t get out of my head. I wouldn’t call it catchy, except that it’s caught me in its pulse.
RELATED: On “Waste,” and “Notes on seeing Phish for the first time in 13 years.”