Scents and Subtle Sounds

Originally Performed ByPhish
Appears On
VocalsTrey (lead), Mike, Page (backing)
Phish Debut2003-07-07
Last Played2023-09-01
Current Gap10
HistorianJeremy D. Goodwin
Last Update2020-03-27


In the cosmology of the Hebrew Scriptures, the defining act of divine Creation is a matter of division: between light and dark, earth and water, day and night. The later Christian tradition of Gnosticism would extend this to the theological concept of a divide between the flesh and the spirit, an idea that would be picked up, among others, by the New England Puritans. (See, for example, Anne Bradstreet’s poem “The Flesh and the Spirit.”)

In order to perform this task, the spirit of God appears ex nihilo (“from nothing”) as a “wind over the water." The earth is “formless and void.” In its noun form, a void is a “large empty space.” In the meta-dichotomy of the Creation story, the Void is the non-Creation – the Nothing before Something. Thus, to fill the void is to do good work, to create the potential for life.

The mysterious Genesis character Enoch is described as being taken from earth “to walk with God,” rather than die. The apocryphal Old Testament-era Book of Enoch tells his story in full. This work was lost to Western society until the last century, but it exerted a heavy influence on many New Testament authors. The book describes how Enoch is swept up by the winds (sometimes translated as a “chariot of wind”) and taken to the ends of the earth and the very foundations of the Heavens, to learn the mysteries of the universe. He sees the storehouses of the winds and rain and of the sun, moon, and stars.

So comes “Scents and Subtle Sounds,” with its promise of winds that “would lift you up into the sky above” to observe the “colors in the void.” 

"Scents and Subtle Sounds" – 7/30/03, Camden, NJ

On the surface, “Scents” is a clear admonition from Tom Marshall to seize the day, and includes memorable couplets such as: “If you would stop and notice that we number every day / But allow the many moments left uncounted slip away.” By living in the moment, the song suggests, we can experience a sublime transport up into the sky, where happy memories “arch across the Earth as spectral colors in the void,” forming a “rainbow record” as the happy times of our lives illuminate the void with their brilliant colors. This is not just a momentary pleasure: “if you do it right, you’ll find the moment never ends.”

Lest we forget, the rainbow is one of the earliest literary symbols, serving as the representation of God’s post-Flood covenant with humanity.

The lyricist himself suggested that this song was about his desire to escape the drudgeries and disappointments in life that threaten to pin down our spirits. “I think a lot of times I sort of feel trapped inside for whatever reason. Inside yourself, inside a place, inside a situation. Maybe at certain times the songs could reflect that. In general I think just sometimes writing those things down makes me realize that I’m not really trapped, and that none of us really are,” he remarked in an interview. “Maybe because that’s my escape: writing it down. Just writing down the fact that I feel a certain way has given me the way out.”

Musically speaking, this is one of those Phish songs (like “Tweezer” and “Ghost”) that took almost no time in the rotation before asserting itself as a jam vehicle. Although its first several versions on summer tour 2003 were executed capably and quickly won the affections of fans (including a debut rendition in Phoenix on 7/7/03 which segued nicely out of an underrated “Wolfman’s Brother”), it was on the occasion of the song’s fifth performance that Phish really threw down the gauntlet. This show-opening “Scents” (on 7/23/03, the last of three nights at Deer Creek) jammed ferociously for over twenty minutes, and demonstrated that the band was willing to anchor a set with a brand new song in a way that hearkened back to the show-opening “Ghosts” of summer 1997.

"Scents and Subtle Sounds" – 6/21/04, The Late Show with David Letterman, New York, NY

These not-so subtle sounds at Deer Creek were no fluke: a week later, in Camden, NJ (7/30/03), a dark and experimental “Scents” sat heavily in the middle of a first set that was otherwise notable for its old school rarities. The next version, on the first night of IT, is remarkable not for a stand-alone jam, but for its spell-binding return to a short reprise of “Seven Below.”

This song was such a defining part of the summer ’03 tour that fans were heard to ask, “When will we get the ‘Scents’?” on the year-ending anniversary and New Year’s runs. Given its frequency of play (appearing in one third of the shows) during that summer, and its intensity of performance, it was a surprise to many when the song did not appear again in 2003 after IT.

Fans who had been holding out for a return of the multi-part composition style exhibited in Phish’s early work could find release in this piece. (See also: “Discern,” as well as Round Room tune “Walls of the Cave.”) While it does not display the zigzag mathematical precision of a “Reba,” it includes at least four distinct sections: an enchanting introduction, an instrumental passage which many find distinctly reminiscent of The Who’s “Sparks,” a ballad-y chorus, and then a jam which reminds of “Harry Hood.”

"Scents and Subtle Sounds" – 8/12/15, Philadelphia, PA. Video © Phish.

The song re-emerged to appear on Undermind, in two versions. The first (noted as an “Intro”), is actually the original demo recorded by Trey and Tom for their Men From Nantucket “album,” and serves as the first appearance of Tom Marshall’s voice on a Phish record. For a time, the Undermind bifurcation held, as all 2004-09 versions of "Scents" did not include the "Intro." "Scents" would make five appearances during the small handful of 2004 shows, including the 6/21/04 Letterman appearance, where the song was actually played twice from atop the marquee of the Ed Sullivan Theater – once broadcast on the show, and again to open the abbreviated set they played for the assembled crowd on Broadway. 

When Phish returned to the stage in 2009, "Scents" was notably absent. It would make one appearance on the 2009 fall tour, opening the second set on the final night of a three show run at Madison Square Garden, before re-entering the void. A year and a half later, it emerged (with its intro section intact!) for a flawless – if by the book – performance on the second night of Super Ball IX. The “S” show at Dick’s later that tour provided a good occasion for another run-through, though the intro was again missing, as it was when the song segued out of an improvisational “Chalk Dust Torture” on 8/3/14 for a particularly truncated rendition. 

It wasn’t until the 8/12/15 show at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts that “Scents” truly regained the swagger it had back upon its first appearances in summer 2003. The slinky intro was back (though particularly mellow and squishy), and though Trey played like he hadn’t been fully briefed on the song’s transitions, a sloppiness of execution seemed to open the door for an expansive jam that added much to one of the most-loved second sets in years. A very nice segue into an intro-less “Scents” at Magnaball (8/23) yielded a jam-less version (which dropped unexpectedly into “What’s The Use?”), compromising hopes that the song would continue on as a Type II showpiece once again. 

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