As appeared in the NDSU Spectrum
Review by Adam Schumacher
If anyone would have asked Matthew Houck of his plans after his exhausting “Here’s To Taking it Easy” tour in 2010, I doubt he would have been able to respond with anything other than a shrug and a scoff. Influenced, in his own words, by the works of Willie Nelson and Brian Eno, his Athens, Georgia native has always lived outside a clear line of musical definition – somewhere between alt folk/country styles. However, after touring for 18 months, Houck stepped into, what he referred to as, “a more experimentally textured atmosphere”. Uncertain if he’d want to record another Phosphorescent album, he bought some analog equipment and began messing with electronics and ambient sounds. (Rumors even circulated that he was recording ambient tracks under a different name). Soon after, due to a personal crisis and the likely jarring winters of NYC, he purchased a ticket to Mexico, set up a hut with a guitar, and carved out what would become “Muchacho”. With this, his 6th full length album, Houck created a sound and a style that may possibly define his musical career.
“Muchacho” shows listeners a new side of Phosphorescent. A life that has turned to magnificent, “uncovered” music. I say “uncovered” – I mean he examines his memories, his heart, and he finds the lines that begin to say what he found under the hut-filtered Mexican sun. And that’s what should be loved most about it – that “begin to say” part. Not the ends of lines. The lasting pronouncements. The pat wisdom or bad poetry. The album has a perfect sense of incompleteness. Some sort of joyous feeling not yet named. Something true has been found and they’re recording it before it’s too late.
In that same sense of urgency, that unedited rush - this album finds itself somewhat defined in its oppositions. “Muchacho” is obsessed with dualities. Light and darkness. Peace and war. Man and beast. A binary tension most apparent on “Song for Zula” – the album’s most single devastating track. Houck sings:
“My heart is wild. And my bones are steam/And I could kill you with my bare hands if I were free”
His lyrics are dexterous and at time seem purposely vague. He cloaks specifics in language both mythical and mundane. As on “Terror in the Canyons (The Wounded Master)”:
“I could be the morning that breaks upon your skin/I could be the devil and do it all again”
It’s a gloomy album, sure, but it’s like a fun type of melancholy. The kind that comes with a sense of buoyancy. There’s hope. And trumpets. And crowds of shit-grinned choirs. I call it an “unglad” album. It’s not sad. Or angry. It’s like a room filled up with smoke. Often blanketed in steadfast, ferocious noise. At times, we hit the floor, fumble. Until an opening finally appears. And this opening is an escape - Houck the guiding voice. His chords strong. Resolute. Omniscient. Laced with a synth and a steel pedal guitar. Not many can pull this off and still feel genuine.
“Sun’s Arising (A Koan, An Exit)” – the albums closing track - shows us that the smoke never clears. It bleeds back to the start and the struggle relapses. Again, we cough. And we crawl with strained, wincing eyes. But Matthew Houck stands up in all of it. And at each end, he rises. Fortified. His heart like a turret.