Phosphorescent | Muchacho
When Phosphorescent's Matthew Houck came off the road in support of his last album, 2010's Here's To Taking It Easy, he was mentally and physically exhausted, uncertain he wanted to make another Phosphorescent record. So he dispatched himself to Tulum, a small community in Mexico, where, he said, "I just checked out of my life for a while." As he took long solitary walks in the woods and swam, the pieces of what would become Muchachobegan taking shape in his mind.
As with everything Houck does as Phosphorescent, from 2007's urban-rustic classic Pride to his 2009 Willie Neslon tribute, this little story has an endearingly second-hand ring to it, as if Houck was obediently following the dictates of some dog-eared country-drifter playbook tucked in his back pocket. But this credulousness is also key to his music, which glows with simple reverence and purity. On Muchacho, Houck gathers together everything he's attempted-- beery, rollicking country-rock, haunted tribal hymnals, regret-soaked bar room heartbreak-- and fashions it into something close to a defining statement.
The first layer of Muchacho to savor is the simple gloriousness of its sound. Houck records his music largely alone, bringing in key players for individual parts but crafting the end results meticulously, in isolation. With the assistance of engineer John Agnello (Kurt Vile, Male Bonding), he has produced a bright, rich, warmly three-dimensional record, one that fuses the headed-for-the-big-city bar-rock signifiers of Here's to Taking it Easy with the night-sky awe of his earliest work. In fact, the album feels like a daylight version of Pride, a point hammered home by the contrast between that album's "Be Dark Night" and this one's two book-ending hymnals.
Accordingly, listening to Muchacho often feels like being warmed by afternoon sun as it floods your window. Every sound is lovingly recorded and given a cradle of space: The rounded pop of the drum track on "Terror in the Canyons (The Wounded Master)", paired with tumbles of upright piano and softly pattering bongos; the dryly whispering bowed harmonics that open "A Charm/A Blade"; the mournful little mariachi trumpet solo winding through the country waltz of "Down to Go". The first thing we hear on the record, introducing the opening "Sun" hymnal, is a dreamlike, welcoming major-key synth flutter. Those synths reappear on "Song For Zula", mingling with crystalline threads of pedal steel guitar, lifting country's signature instrument further heavenward.
At the center of all these majestic noises sits Houck himself. His voice is an unreliable instrument-- reedy, hiccuping, prone to cutting out entirely mid-note-- but he plies it heartbreakingly, never more than on Muchacho. On "Sun, Arise!" and "A New Anhedonia", he stacks himself into massed, keening layers, like a church full of choirboys. It’s a technique that he’s used before, but he has never sounded as overwhelming as he does here. The persistent catch in his voice, meanwhile gives him an unstable, baby chick fragility, magnifying the pathos of a line like, "See honey I am not some broken thing/ I do not lay here in the dark waiting for thee" from "Song For Zula".
One of Muchacho's main thematic concerns is redemption, and it’s one Houck explores with his customary ringing, allegorical language. Sometimes his writing grows so high-flown that it eludes sense: "I was the wounded master, and I was the slave… I was the holy lion, and I was the cage/ I was the bleeding actor, and I was the stage," he sings on "Terror in the Canyons (The Wounded Master)". More straightforward is this, from "Muchacho’s Tune": "See I was slow to understand/ This river’s bigger than I am/ It’s running faster than I can, though lord I tried." It’s a simple sentiment, pitched somewhere south of Zen koan and just north of heartland-rock cliche, and it maps out the coordinates of Houck’s world: It’s a place where well-worn sounds are the most beloved, where ideas and poses are settled into like old chairs. On Muchacho, Houck invests this world with new beauty and profundity.