[Dead Oceans, 2013]
At some point during the opening track to Phosphorescent’s Muchacho, Matthew Houck’s uneven country twang of a falsetto seeps through the lush chorus built up during the three-minute “Sun, Arise! (An Invocation, An Introduction).” It’s a moment on the record–the first of many–where a portion of the song snaps the listener back to reality; the airy intro sounds unlike anything Houck has ever done, but for that brief moment when the titled-Stetson hat troubadour breaks through the choirboy aesthetic billowing around him, it’s easy to remember where he came from. What makes Muchacho such a dynamic record amongst Houck’s catalog is how well he balances the grandiose production value and instrumentation (“Sun, Arise!” sounds like the church choir is involved in a volume battle with Animal Collective tinkering away in the rectory) with the rootsy sound of his earlier records like Aw Come Aw Wry and Pride. In blending these styles, Phosphorescent represent not only how far he’s come, but also all of the stops along the way.
Following the huge critical success and touring force of 2010’s Here’s To Taking It Easy, Houck–an Alabama native–returned to his current home of Brooklyn physically worn down and mentally drained. Houck is old-school; though, as he puts it, a record today is a “grand statement,” rather than in his influences’ era, when the likes of John Prine and Bob Dylan worked at a semi-annual rate of recording and releasing records, he tends to follow-up records quickly. As a relative unknown, he was afforded the luxury of constant recording, but as success takes its hold, so too do obligations–namely, touring. When he returned, he “was weary, so the spectre of putting anything out and getting back on the road was a bit of a block.” He took a vastly different approach to recording Muchacho, taking his time with old analog equipment, “just starting playing around with it, making these noises. They weren’t songs, they were just strange sound pieces. I’ve always had that element in my work, and one or two weird, ambient pieces seem to squeeze themselves onto every record, but suddenly I was doing a lot of those.” In approaching songcraft in the unique way of creating a nebulous shape to be stretched in many different directions, Houck’s typically linear tracks have become a bit more obtuse.
That thrill of sonic experimentation is evident immediately, and expounded upon with the expansive lead single, “Song For Zula.” Arpeggiating stringed instruments swirl around Houck’s vivid personifications of love like a peaceful embrace as a tornado rages all around. The track never reaches a definitive climax in the traditional sense; instead, variations of Houck’s vocal inflections and wordplay drive the song to new and interesting places for Phosphorescent. The comfort that comes from establishing himself as a songwriter for the better part of the 2000s is the freedom to let things simmer and for beauty to come about in subtle ways. Paramount to that is the fact that Houck can turn six minutes of steadfast repetition–looping, in essence–into one of his more moving pieces to date.
“Ride On / Right On” is the same side of the coin in many ways, with Houck and company piling on dense textures on top of a very raw, yet regimented backbeat. It is an obviously gleeful fit of experimentation, with guitars and organs careening off of one another, nothing taking hold for too long. It isn’t until “Terror In The Canyons (The Wounded Master)” that Muchacho feels like what listeners have come to know as Phosphorescent. The song adheres to traditional forms while straddling the line of what could possibly be referred to as “traditional.” It also straddles the border dividing Texas from Mexico; in the left ear, dusty blues guitar riffs pierce the lovelorn lyrics, while in the right, mariachi trumpets and fiddles lament them. The song naturally builds to the gorgeous chorus of, “Now you’re telling me my heart’s sick, and I’m telling you I know / You’re telling me you’re leaving and I’m telling you to go / Not so sorry for the heartbreak but for each season left unblessed / A new terror in the canyon, a new tear in our chest,” delving into Muchacho’s prevalent lyrical theme of love’s both redemptive and destructive powers.
That theme, Houck says, fittingly came about with “Muchacho’s Tune.” It serves as the record’s centerpiece, with saloon-style pianos and slow, jaunting country/western vibe. It was the first fully-formed, linear song that came about from the experimentally-tinged Muchacho sessions, with Houck delicately digging into the thought of how redeeming love can be, “I found some fortune, found some fame / Finally cauterized my veins / Yeah, I’ve been fucked up and I’ve been a fool / Like the shepherd to the lamb, like the wave onto the sand / I fixed myself up to come and be with you.” There is a haven to be found in another’s arms, and the comfort that comes with the softly-blown trumpet refrains of “Muchacho’s Tune” wrap around the listener like those arms would. The track also ushers in the beginning of the end to Muchacho, with the slow, forlorn country of “A New Anhedonia” and “Down To Go” and the explosive, loose rock exploration found in “The Quotidian Beasts.”
In that way, Muchacho has a very complete, engrossing arc. It is introduced with an experimentally sonic bent, before surrendering to the slow drip of the country-tinged work of Phosphorescent’s past, all wound together in a way that makes for a cohesive listen. The old bleeds into the new and the new into the old. “Sun’s Arising (A Koan, An Exit)” takes the same densely-layered vocal of the intro, and instead of the flittering, otherworldly accompaniment of the latter, the outro feels loose and broken down; jangling guitars and disembodied voices float around the outskirts of the mix, making for a fitting bookend to the record. It’s as if Houck has left everything on Muchacho, and there is nothing there to keep him together by the end of it.