Glen Phillips has been making music for two decades now, starting as the 14-year-old frontman of Toad the Wet Sprocket. During that time, he?s accumulated a sizable body of work comprising seven albums with Toad (which collectively have sold close to 4 million units) and three as a solo artist. The latest, Winter Pays for Summer ? his first for Lost Highway ? is at once the most richly melodic and the most intensely personal album of his career.
Phillips says the musical inspiration for Winter Pays for Summer was a handful of albums ?that really ripped my heart out as a kid? ? classics like the Waterboys? This Is the Sea, the Replacements Let It Be, Talk Talk?s Spirit of Eden, XTC?s English Settlement and Peter Gabriel?s So. ?I guess I wanted in some ways to make an ?80s record that had aged really well,? he says. Along with the above reference points, listeners will pick up distinct echoes of the indigenous SoCal singer-songwriter tradition that is as much a part of the Santa Barbara native?s artistic makeup as it was with antecedents like Jackson Browne, Warren Zevon and Lindsey Buckingham.
Producing was John Fields (Switchfoot, Andrew W.K., the Honeydogs), who doubled on keyboards and guitars in Phillips? world-class studio band, anchored by bassist Jim Anton and drummer Pete Thomas (Elvis Costello, Los Lobos). Among the contributors are guitarists Michael Chavez (John Mayer), Greg Suran (Goo Goo Dolls) and Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann, Rufus Wainwright), along with vocalists Andy Sturmer (Jellyfish), Kristin Mooney and Ben Folds. Former Semisonic frontman Dan Wilson co-wrote three songs and played on another.
? At a musical level, this is what I?ve dreamed of my entire life,? Phillips says of the music that came out of the interaction of these world-class players. ?Just to walk into a situation where everybody?s happy ? and it?s so good. To have Pete Thomas jumping up and down in the control room during playback going, ?I haven?t had this much fun in ages!? was priceless.?
From a thematic standpoint, Winter Pays for Summer reflects the sort of grown-up concerns one would expect from a thoughtful and articulate young man preoccupied by keeping a long-term relationship on course, raising a family and making a living in the first decade of the 21st century. Phillips and his wife, who?ve been together for 15 years, have three young daughters. ?When Im at a low point,? he says, ?I use songs to ask myself the questions that help me get back out. So it?s a pretty serious album; even the love songs are not ?Baby, you?re so sweet,? love songs. They?re about the love that happens when you?ve been with somebody for a while, gone through good times and hard times and come out of them recognizing that you have something deeper and better.?
In this sense, the album serves as both an intimate reflection on the artist?s own ups and downs and a sort of a postmillennial survival guide. Phillips brings together these personal and universal threads in the opening song, ?Duck and Cover?: ?Everybody here?s got a story to tell / Everybody?s been through their own hell / There?s nothing too special about getting hurt / But getting over it, well, that takes the work.?
These songs may be rich in substance, but Phillips? aesthetic encompasses the medium as well as the message. He has a gift for coming up with melodies that not only enliven his themes but also satisfy in their own right. ?I like melodies that take you somewhere you might not be expecting. At best, they enhance the lyrics instead or merely supporting them. Its also not a bad thing to be a little infectious, if possible.?
Take ?Thankful,? the first single, a rocking track with all kinds of cool vocal and instrumental ornamentation that presents its thematic payload ? ?We?ve both got a lot to be thankful for? ? atop a melody line that?s downright incandescent, delivered by Phillips in his disarming, boy-next-door voice. ?Thankful? encapsulates what makes the album so spellbinding overall: it makes an immediate impression, and it deepens in resonance with each successive listening.
When he decided to title the album Winter Pays for Summer, Phillips explains, ?I was thinking of balance ? pain and joy adding up to something whole and complete. Im learning that I can?t avoid the difficult times or stop them from happening, but I just need to handle them more wisely. Ive spent too much of the last few years in worry and regret ? my unstable job, my personal shortcomings, the state of the world. I dont want to trust in some intangible concept; I just want to figure out how to see whats in front of me more clearly.?
Since he?s set off on his own, Phillips has become increasingly aware of how his songs may connect with a listener. ?I used to say with Toad that my songs are just for me; if other people get anything out of them, fine. But since Toad, I?ve understood how important the music was to some people. I try to work on the big questions through song. If other people are asking those same questions, they might be able to use the song as a tool the same way I did and get something out of it. There?s so much materialism and cynicism these days, and the music that?s always moved me has been about heart and spirit. That?s what I hope I can provide, too.?
Heart and spirit: Glen Phillips? music has plenty of both ? not to mention delectable hooks ? as Winter Pays for Summer so captivatingly demonstrates.