TREY ANASTASIO’s first-ever solo acoustic album, MERCY, is out today. Below are the complete album liner notes written by David Fricke:
Mercy is a genuine and surprising first for Trey Anastasio: his studio debut as a solo, acoustic singer-songwriter. The nine songs were all written in the emotional ricochet of recent, pandemic life, then recorded with the absolute purity of one man with a guitar and a microphone. There is nothing like it in Anastasio’s lifetime of albums, even after nearly four decades as the singer, guitarist and primary composer in Phish, numerous side projects, collaborations and the long-running Trey Anastasio Band.
“I’ve never done anything like this before,” Anastasio confirms. But the last two years of fear, loss and, at times, devastating quiet have been unlike anything most of us have ever known. Mercy is Anastasio’s account of that confusion and isolation in unresolved questions and conflicted passions, in a music of quietly gripping force. And it arrives with the same immediacy: just weeks after Anastasio recorded it and two years – almost to the day – since his adopted home, New York City, went into lockdown.
“The lyrical themes are appropriately jumbled,” Anastasio admits, “a flipping back-and-forth,” as he puts it, between urgency and exhaustion, real hope and repeatedly diminished expectations, delivered like messages from the front – or across the kitchen table – in live-vocal takes, framed by seductively layered guitars. “I can’t go back, I need a little more time,” Anastasio sings in the opening track, “I Need a Little More Time,” repeating those lines like prayer over pastoral strumming. “Flying Blind,” in turn, is a buoyant contradiction that would be at home in a Phish encore – if you didn’t hear the fissure in the words, that faith in love laced with doubt.
Anastasio points to the image in “Hey Stranger” of two people connected yet adrift in the same, uncharted space (“Like orbiting planets/Predictable and powerful”). “In my mind,” he says, “that is the internal journey everybody had: ‘I want to be here with no one but you. I also want to get out from under this. And what is this?'” Then he notes the assurance and way forward in the next verse: “I’ve got music/So who needs anything more?”
Stuck at home, Anastasio “played a lot of acoustic guitar,” writing the songs that became Mercy like he was “filling a journal.” He considered doing “some homework” – tracking additional instruments in his home studio as he did on 2020’s Lonely Trip. And he briefly thought of going up to the Barn, Phish’s recording sanctuary in Vermont, and cutting the songs with bandmate Page McConnell on keyboards in the manner of their 2021 chamber-duo album, December.
But Mercy “is like a bookend,” Anastasio explains. “It’s two years since we went into hiding. This is still going on, and it’s an even lonelier trip.” There were highs along the way – a Phish studio album, Sigma Oasis, in the spring of 2020; Anastasio’s “Beacon Jam” charity concerts that fall, livestreamed from New York’s Beacon Theater; and Phish’s return to the road in the fall of 2021, during a brief window between variants. Most of the time, though, “Here I was, still at home, playing acoustic guitar. I thought, ‘These songs just want to be one guy with a guitar, singing.'”
The roots of Mercy go back further – to Anastasio’s first tours as a solo, acoustic performer, starting with three shows in 2017, followed by longer runs in 2018 and 2019, highlighted by a sold-out two-night stand at New York’s legendary Carnegie Hall. The set lists were largely made up of Phish songs stripped to their chord progressions, signature licks and vocal melodies. “But I found this weird thing happening,” Anastasio recalls, “where ‘Maze'” – an eight-minute trip on 1993’s Rift – “worked on acoustic guitar. Who would have thought that? ‘It’s about the jam, the organ solo.’ Turns out it wasn’t. It was about the lyrics and the music.”
Then in June 2021, Anastasio played his first shows for live fans in more than a year – a week of solo, acoustic gigs in Saratoga, New York and back at the Beacon. The songs again were mostly from the Phish bag. But the emotional exchange “was like a direct path,” Anastasio recalls, “from my heart to the audience. The honesty and simplicity of those shows – without it, this album would not have happened.”
That is true as well of the guitar Anastasio plays on Mercy, custom-designed and hand-crafted from century-old wood by a luthier in Burlington, Vermont. McConnell commissioned the instrument as a birthday gift, presenting it to Anastasio last fall during a Phish rehearsal at the Barn. “That was the turning point,” Anastasio declares. Back in New York, “I’d get up early every day, make coffee and write these songs on that guitar.” Then while recording Mercy, “The decision was made very quickly: ‘Let me double the guitar.’ I was listening to the first take on headphones and playing off it. It was like jamming with myself.”
Mercy comes with long, deep echoes: Laurel Canyon’s golden age of woodsmoke and introspection; the confessional streak running through Britain’s folk revival in the late Sixties; the slow-dance spell and modal-guitar inventions of Joni Mitchell. A future waits in here too. “Definitely,” Anastasio replies right away when asked if he can imagine playing these songs with Phish or TAB, improvising in the psychedelic glow of “6 and 1/2 Minutes” or building on the eccentric guitar ride at the end of “Arc.” “Songs are like children,” he says. “They will tell you what to do. But when I was writing these songs, I thought, ‘I have to go direct to the finish line’ – to be able to play these songs on acoustic guitar first.”
He mentions a favorite quote that goes back to Leonardo da Vinci: “Art lives by constraint.” Mercy “is a perfect example,” Anastasio says. “One mic, one stool, one guitar. It’s a new outlet. And I love it.”
Mercy was produced by Bryce Goggin and Robert “RAab” Stevenson and engineered and mixed by Mike Fahey.
Release Date: March 11, 2022
a little more time
blazing down the twisted wire
6 1/2 minutes
roll like a river
ever changing tide