CD Review – Phosphorescent “Muchacho”
The cover art of Phosphorescent’s Muchacho depicts a grittily lit scene with two topless women on a motel room bed – one on her back and the other upright and beaming, sporting a cowboy hat. Matthew Houck (aka Phosphorescent) laughs in the foreground, much of his face off to the side of the frame. Something about the photograph’s atmosphere – given one’s familiarity with the aching and forlorn terrain of Phosphorescent’s music – tells you the joy of the scene is likely fleeting. We are uncertain whether these women are newfound acquaintances picked up from a local cantina, good friends or paid company; any of the three is easy to believe. Something tells us the levity of the scene is but a short-lived reprieve to a nagging heartache, and neither of these women is the cause nor the cure for the restless heart on display on Muchacho (and Houck’s five previous albums). The scene is lovely, happy, slightly seedy and sad all at once, even with broad smiles etched upon the faces in the room. It’s with this imagery that we enter Muchacho.
Phosphorescent fans coming into the Matthew Houck outfit’s sixth album will discover a few new flourishes (notably in the album’s electronic-abetted sounds of the album’s cleansing bookends) to a beloved sound, but the ten tunes of Muchacho capitalize on a range of sounds and themes that have been inextricable from Houck’s versatile music from his decade-plus recording career.
The first words following the Muchacho prelude “Sun Arise! (An Invocation, An Introduction),” a celestial, harmonized mantra colored by electronic blips and swirls (a new weapon in the Phosphorescent arsenal), find Houck opening “Song for Zula” by paying homage to Johnny Cash: “Some say love is a burning thing / That it makes a fiery ring.” Over the course of his career, Houck has shared a thing or two about being scorched and scarred by a ring of fire, and he has made prodigious use of his love for the legends of country music (see: 2009’s To Willie, a Phosphorescent album consisting entirely of wonderful Willie Nelson covers) . Taking full advantage of his singularly breathtaking voice that alternates between singing out like a dozen-deep choir of fragility and a naked vessel of often-cracking notes, Houck crafts impossibly gorgeous tunes of dusty nomadism and love in vain that coalesce into earned, tender grace. The unfolding beauty of his recorded heartache is always music to endure and ultimately cherish, but the wealth of beauty contained within the six minutes of “Song for Zula” transports the listener to especially grand heights born out of a man gutted down to his calloused innards.
Of the fiery ring, Houck sings, “I know love as a fading thing / Just as fickle as a feather in a stream /…I saw love disfigure me / into something I am not recognizing.” He knows the scars love brings all too well, and he promises “I will not open myself up this way again.” By the time all is said and done, Houck has conjured “love as a caging thing / Just a killer to call from some awful dream,” and he declares, “My heart is wild / And my bones are steam / And I could kill you with my bare hands if I was free.”
Often, Houck’s finest songs – and “Song for Zula” (not to mention many others on Muchacho) is a perfect example – have the power to summon a glorious clarity born of a pain that equates to the first unstrained inhalation after a blast to the gut that knocks the wind out of you. Prostrate on the ground (or, more fittingly, on your knees) you gasp and strain with flooded eyes, and the relief rushes to you in an instant. The relief and the dissipating fear settle your palpitating heart and bring a freeing clarity, but the memories of pain and fear will hang around for the long haul.
Much of the rollicking country-rock backed by a full band that brought the songs of 2010’s Here’s To Taking It Easy to life is absent on Muchacho; the boisterous, brassy “A Charm / A Blade” is the most notable exception here. That’s not to say Houck doesn’t bring some swagger and noise to the album now and again. “Ride On / Right On” envelops the listener with a boozy, electric groove while Houck yelps and rattles off “rose on the back,” “we sit at the bar,” and “we lay in the dark” backed with “hej, you turn me right on.” Where “Song for Zula” is a high-water mark far as transcendent ballads go in the Phosphorescent catalog, “The Quotidian Beasts (The Familiar Attendants)” delivers the stunning highs Houck is prone to unleashing when he loosens up and rocks out. Starting with a tantalizing groove borrowing liberally from Chris Isaak’s unforgettable “Wicked Game,” Houck and his cohorts tear through a seven-minute blast of Tonight’s The Night-worthy rock and roll that howls westward across the Badlands and washes into the desert skies.
For the most part though, Muchacho brandishes a quieter, bleary-eyed fragility that is undeniably Phosphorescent. Born of an admitted rough stretch resulting from the loss of his New York residence and forcing him to set forth south of the border to regroup in a beach hut on the Yucatan Peninsula, the album is clearly the work of a talented, red-blooded artist sorting through his demons, dusting off his soiled denim and crafting the experiences into sublime music. Houck wrote, recorded and produced the album in his new NY home after returning from his Mexican sojourn, bringing in gifted players to add the wonderful layers of horns, pedal steel, bass, fiddle and even synthesizer to the songs. Houck’s writing, the playing, and his own production on the album are nothing short of superb.
There is absolutely no mistaking a Phosphorescent album, and the transcendence achieved throughout Muchacho ranks alongside the finest music he has ever made. On “Muchacho’s Tune,” the album’s lilting, wounded namesake fleshed out with exquisite pedal steel and horns, Houck comes right out and admits, “I’ve been fucked up / And I’ve been a fool.” Down but refusing to let go, he promises, “Aw now, mama, here I stand / Mama, reaching for your hand / I fix myself up / Come and be with you.” In the magnificent late-album ballad “Down to Go,” Houck presents a telling conversation that explicitly gets to the heart of Phosphorescent’s greatest strength: “You say ‘Oh, you’ll spin this heartache into gold’ / And I suppose, I ain’t got much choice now do I tho?” In interviews, Houck is often unafraid to admit his personal life works its way into the strife of his tunes, but he also leaves it open-ended as to exactly how much of the subject matter is fact or fiction. Whether his heartache songs are entirely personal choice or crafted from a sense of resignation, Houck lives up to his word and weaves Muchacho’s tapestries into priceless, hardened gold.
*Phosphorescent’s Muchacho is out now via Dead Oceans.
**This review first appeared on The Silver Tongue on March 18, 2013.
Phosphorescent – “Song for Zula”
Justin works as a content producer for ChaCha in Indianapolis during the day. He got his start writing music pieces with Laundromatinee in Indianapolis, where he still makes featured contributions. Justin resides in Noblesville, IN, and his personal blog, Division St. Harmony, can be found at www.divisionstharmony.tumblr.com.
His first loves in music have long been The Clash, Dylan, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Tom Waits, Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen. His personal tastes are fairly broad and include garage, indie rock, classic rock, Americana, roots, outlaw and classic country, punk, blues, rhythm and blues and soul.
Justin takes pride in an affinity for writing and music that is both rich in head and heart. Justin welcomes you to follow him on Twitter at @clashrebel and on Facebook.
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