Under the name Phosphorescent, American singer/songwriter Matthew Houck has built a career – with six albums so far – that sees him regularly receiving the hushed-tones and revered-raves that cult fans, completists and critics hurl at the likes of Richmond Fontaine’s Willy Vlautin, Sun Kil Moon/Red House Painters’ Mark Kozelek, American Music Club’s Mark Eitzel and in a few more years another shoe-in to add to that list if he’s not there already is Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. If there’s a pattern there, beyond quality/consistency and a voice it’s that all hide themselves behind a band-moniker or if it is an actual band that group exists as a vehicle primarily for this lead voice, that’s for the songwriting voice too.
I first really got on board with Phosphorescent on his Willie Nelson tribute album, To Willie and stayed on for the following year’s Here’s To Taking It Easy. Since then there’s been an almost three-year break so plenty of time to go back to the earlier EP and albums. And it’s a fine body of work. But Muchacho extends the palette. That lonesome, wearisome, lived-in voice continues but there are new daubs at the canvas and it’s all been framed anew; accentuating the gloss that’s been applied, the new angles. It’s not just another bid for alt-country/folkish indie music. But, fans of that need not panic, he’s not exactly left those feels/feelings behind. The salvation, the hope of redemption, the confessions just come with a few new textures for toe-dipping.
The epic tracks are the standouts, the seven minutes of The Quotidian Beasts feels like Blood On The Tracks–era Dylan taught to love ProTools, a copy of the new Bad Seeds album left near the console for reference.
It’s one of those tracks that just hits; just pulls you in. You’re going for the ride and you believe it instantly – believe in Phosphorescent, you know you’re in good hands.
Perhaps even more surprising and impressive is the album’s second track, Song For Zula. Here Houck has the audacity to straight out lift a Johnny Cash refrain, recontextualising the “burning thing” line from Ring of Fire as Bon Iver with less agitation, instead taking tokes with Daniel Lanois in the studio before knocking it out of the park.
These two songs are masterpieces. In the old days they’d be the reasons to buy the whole album. But it doesn’t really work that way anymore. Thankfully, Phosphorescent has never worked that way and there’s a depth and breadth in these songs. He writes the way Will Oldham used to write at the peak of his career, when emotional honesty reaching for gravitas, hoping for stability and settling for personal validation, or just a back-door exit with dignity in the getaway car was a type of lyrical blueprint.
Down To Go gives you that tears-in-beers country feeling you might be after; something Phosphorescent has always been able to muster without ever seeming like he’s faking it. And there’s a beautiful swell of horns in support of this tune. Just enough of a twist is given for this to avoid any so-what rehash claims.
Matthew Houck might even suit comparisons to novelists and short story writers like Barry Gifford, Raymond Carver and John Fante as much as to any other musicians. In that sense I have to wonder if, like Willy Vlautin, he’s got a novel or three in him. Perhaps he’ll just keep releasing these novels, these short-story-collections-inside-song-cycles. Consider Muchacho his Ask The Dust; consider Muchacho a new beginning for Phosphorescent – with enough to keep the old guard while seeking out a few new fans. Consider it his finest to date and one of the albums of the year.