[18 March 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Matthew Houck has, as musical entity Phosphorescent, always been just outside clear definition. He’s equal parts eccentric noisemaker and singer-songwriter. His breakout album, the bittersweet and solitary Pride, didn’t offer any hint at its follow-up, the earnest Willie Nelson tribute To Willie or the rollicking country-rock of 2010’s Here’s to Taking it Easy. He’s not a performer content to make the same music over and over again. Muchacho is another testament to his musical restlessness, as the album finds him combining old elements in new ways and introducing new elements to his arsenal.
The album came out of two strange points of genesis. After touring for 18 months, Houck stepped back from the record-tour-record cycle, bought some analog equipment and just started messing with electronics and ambient sounds. He even considered making a wordless ambient record under a different name. But then a personal crisis forced him to move, and the jarring experience of moving in the winter in New York drove him to buy a ticket to Mexico. There he set up in a hut, with a guitar, and carved out the songs that would become Muchacho.
If the story, particularly the part about Mexico, feels clichéd, it still fits well with Houck’s constant investigation into the idea of the troubadour. Here, he’s the heartbroken expat, simultaneously running away from and trying to articulate his myriad hurts. Musically, Muchacho approximates all that distance with expansive, spacious songs, from the incantatory bookends “Sun Arise!” and “Sun Arising” that start and end the record – he’s become an expert at these spiritual harmony tunes – to the electronic haze of “Song for Zula” and the crunchy beats and squall of “Ride On/Right On”. These songs, excluding “Sun Arising”, fall early in the album, and establish a whole new world for Phosphorescent. It takes the lonesome layers of Pride and rather than letting them churn in space, makes them stumble forward bleary-eyed into the light of day.
From there, the album backs away from the 808s and electronics, delving into the echoing country-folk of “Terror in the Canyons (The Wounded Master)”. It’s a calmer version of the dust and twang of Here’s to Taking it Easy, and much of the rest of the album follows suit. The bright horns of “A Charm/A Blade” brighten the mix up a bit, but then yield to the tumbleweed, tack-piano-and-pedal-steel solitude of “Muchacho’s Tune”. The songs move around in texture and dive into big spaces, spaces too big to comprehend, and Houck is just as lost in the middle of it. “All the music is boring to me,” he claims in “A New Anhedonia”, and on “Song For Zula”, he starts by calling into question the wisdom of that music, in particular Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”. “Some say love is a burning thing, that it makes a fiery ring,” he sings, seemingly shaking his head. The musician here has lost, of all things, the music. And Muchacho is a fight to get it back.
It’s “Down to Go”, a late-album track, that gets at the heart of this, though. A leaving woman tells the narrator, “Oh, you’ll spin your heartache into gold,” to which he responds, “I suppose, but it rips my heart out don’t you know.” So we’re in a space where music may be the cure, but not only is it not enough, but the narrator presumes the actual heartache, the pain that leads to the gold, is incomprehensible to not only the woman on the other side of the equation, but maybe the listener as well.
Therein lies the fascination and limitation of Muchacho. It is an album about the ways in which we recover, the ways in which we find ourselves after feeling loss. It’s also an album that, musically, full of fitful and exciting exploration. But where Pride took solitude and rendered it universal through sheer expanse and force of will, Muchacho sometimes confuses the personal with the insular. In finding yourself, it gets hard to let others into that process, and though the singing is crackling and bittersweet, the songs swirling and often bracing, the emotions here feel at a distance. It doesn’t help that Houck retreats to his country troubadour affectations at time, whooping and babying and honeying his way through these songs with a cavalier sense of feeling wronged. We already know there’s a vital voice beneath all that, we’ve heard it on past records. So while Houck continues to move forward as a composer here, the words (look at how often “I” gets used) sometimes leave us out in the cold he retreated from to write them.