Trey Anastasio released lots of solo albums from 2002 through 2012, with success that varied as widely as the styles on each record. Paper Wheels is quite a departure from most of those albums, as it features no overly slick production, lofty orchestral undertakings, or sprawling rock-band ensembles. It has the most in common with 2007’s The Horseshoe Curve and 2003’s live set Plasma in that it was recorded quickly and with gusto. There are a few spontaneous moments left intact, and even a few tiny flaws here and there, that help to convey the intensity of the session.
The songs on Paper Wheels are familiar to Anastasio’s current septet, and he smartly decided to cram them into his now-legendary Vermont Barn recording studio and bang out an approximation of their live show approach. The songs are typical Trey, full of his singular stream-of-consciousness guitar playing, where riffs often aren’t riffs at all, but loose structures of sound. Trumpeter and singer Jennifer Hartswick is as much a figurehead as Anastasio in this band, and her personality peeks through for the entirety of Paper Wheels. Beyond her ever present backing vocals and horn arrangements, she nearly takes the vocal lead on “Never” and proves to be the defining voice on the album by the time it’s over.
“Sometime After Sunset” leads the album off with a style that the band frequently employs, a vaguely funky, mid-tempo rock strut that opens up into a space within which the horns and guitar frolic freely. “The Song” features yet another of Anastasio’s existential lyrics, which have dominated his work in recent years: “The hands on the clock keep ticking, just rolling along/In the end all that’s left is the song”. His evocative, fantastical, image-laden writing is in abundance as well, with plenty of lines about waves, sun, air, ice, land, clouds, shadows, and things that sway, spin, shimmer, collapse, wiggle, bounce, and explode.
“Never”, an Anastasio/Marshall composition that is nearly two decades old, reaches its zenith here in a beautifully arranged version that includes a deep, Phishy jam at the end. “Invisible Knife” strives for a similar peak and finds Anastasio having a blast with his octave pedal before resolving in a glorious blast of inarticulate harmonies and layered vocals. Anastasio’s signature silliness is on display throughout Paper Wheels as well. “Paper Wheels”, “In Rounds”, and “Bounce” are all childlike exercises in groove and lyrical goofiness, though there’s nothing goofy about the simmering instrumental jam that arises from “In Rounds”. With its surreal lyrics and cow-funk composition, “In Rounds” would be a welcome addition to a Phish setlist, even if it would suffer a bit from lack of Hartswick harmonies.
Paper Wheels is the sound of a band moving as one, and the listener can feel their mental connection during moments like the dusty, Dire Straits-like section of “Liquid Time”, the dense movements of “Speak to Me”, and the spiraling outro of “Lever Boy”. Whenever Anastasio’s long, prolific career as a musician is over, this will certainly be remembered as one of his most representative solo achievements.