Phosphorescent 2024
Photo: Curtis Wayne Millard / Shore Fire Media

Phosphorescent Turns Introspective on ‘Revelator’

Revelator captures Phosphorescent’s endeavor to encounter life as it is, practicing vulnerability, empathy, and a degree of self-effacement.

5 April 2024

With 2013’s Muchacho and 2018’s C’est La Vie, Matthew Houck, working under the moniker Phosphorescent, documented his crumbling idealism while clinging to an appreciation for beauty. Both sets addressed humanity’s paradoxical nature, Houck’s lyrics wafting above meticulously crafted soundscapes. His latest set, Revelator, finds him in a more self-reflective space. Life is still daunting, the psyche untamable, and the world an unpredictable cauldron. Houck’s vocals, however, frequently exude equanimity, pointing to the singer-songwriter’s budding acceptance of suffering, ephemerality, and death.

“I got tired of sadness / I got tired of all the madness / I got tired of being a badass all the time,” Houck announces on the title track, expressing frustration with his personality and habits. He goes on to reference unfortunate decisions, romances that didn’t work out, and the shutdown of “the city” (at once a metaphor for the decline of Western culture and a probable allusion to Covid). As the track nears completion, he elaborates, “I don’t even like what I like anymore”, bringing to mind Dylan’s “Queen Jane” lyric, “You’re tired of yourself / And all of your creations”, both artists alluding to a profound disruption of identity (Bob Dylan sounding wryly philosophic, Houck more pensively diaristic).

In “Fences”, built around well-polished organ and pedal steel parts, Houck’s vocal is alternately strained and plaintive. “I guess I must have asked too much of you,” Phosphorescent ponders, reflecting on a friend or partner who was an expert at erecting barriers. Saliently, he extends forgiveness – to the other person and, perhaps, to himself. “The stars were out to shine, but you were way gone / I saw it in the way you laced your shoe,” he adds in a notably descriptive couplet, conjuring the way someone can be in the presence of something magical yet be checked out, lost in thought.

“Impossible House” crosses shuffling beats, slick synths, and melodic guitars. Houck’s gravelly vocal edge complements his austere lyricism. In “Wide as Heaven”, Houck leaps between dramatic imagery and wistful declarations, striving for pathos (“Time is a raven with a beak of blood / crying at seven every morning”), though he occasionally stumbles into bathos (“Why does heaven make me feel so sad?”). The song’s final two minutes feature a transportive semi-classical wash of string sounds, percussion, and ambient effects, recalling the sublime sonics of earlier work.

“A Moon Behind the Clouds” reflects Phosphorescent’s indebtedness to Paul Simon, particularly Graceland’s popularization of South African beats. That said, in terms of overall tone and timbre, Houck is more melancholy and less ironically pitched than Simon, more in line with the Tallest Man on Earth or recent performances from the National’s Matt Berninger. “A Poem on the Men’s Room Wall”, meanwhile, moves between frat-house graffiti (“Fear is the mind killer / Beer is the fear killer”) and coffeeshop verse (“I traded in thunder / But that’s only weather / And I owe you better than that”). Houck emanates fatigue, and yet, as mentioned, his even-keeled vocal points to a certain unflappability, a capacity to see “the light in the trees” even as he feels “cold and lonely”.

Lilting closer, “To Get It Right”, pokes at the mystery of existence, how history is packed with theories, recommendations, analyses, anecdotes, and endorsements, though as the Buddha, Ed Murphy, and Arthur Bloch knew, crap happens. Things don’t go as planned; disappointment occurs, and, as Yogi Berra might add, the perfect batting average is imperfect. Houck’s riff on the matter goes as follows: “You’ve done all right, but it’s all untrue / It’s a full-on nightmare,” which is to say: the reflection in the mirror is an illusion, and the road to hell is lined with breathtaking flowers. In short, “to get it right is hard to do”.

Phosphorescent’s Revelator is less melodically charged than Muchacho and C’est La Vie (or even parts of Here’s to Taking It Easy). Also, Houck’s vocals sometimes flounder in woozy, loungey, soft-pillow mixes. That said, Revelator is a transitional album for Houck, as he turns his attention more unwaveringly to interior dynamics, less preoccupied with the vagaries of the external world. Regret is a waste of time, though desire seems equally suspect, another karmic perpetuator (as Leonard Cohen might say). Speaking into this cycle of craving and remorse, Houck concludes his latest set with newfound composure, offering words of encouragement: “It’s what we do.” Revelator captures his endeavor to encounter life as it is, practicing vulnerability, empathy, and a degree of self-effacement.

RATING 7 / 10