Phosphorescent - Muchacho
Record Label - Dead Oceans
Release Date - March 19, 2013
There are certain bands you just miss. Two come up immediately for me -- The Walkmen and Modest Mouse. With The Walkmen, Bows + Arrows just never struck me and I was left holding the bag before being brought on the wagon with the wonderfully emotive Lisbon. And, I can't tell you how many Modest Mouse records got handed to me in college. I listened to them, blankly, before an epiphany through my fourth or fifth spin of The Moon and Antarctica brought the realization -- oh, it's about death. After hearing Muchacho, Phosphorescent's newest record, you might realize that you've been sleeping on this guy as well.
It's just a name, and the guy behind the name is Matthew Houck, who I first encountered in 2009 while reviewing his all-cover record of Willie Nelson tunes, aptly titled To Willie. My initial thought after the review was -- well here's a guy who's doing his damnedest to keep that alt-country thing alive. More out there, sure, but still, who needs a record about the Red-Headed Stranger when you have the Red Headed Stranger? What I didn't realize in that review (and to be fair I only had 150 words) was that the choice of Nelson, as opposed to say Cash or Jennings or Frank Sinatra for that matter, was purposeful on Houck's part beyond the obvious time it takes to cover, arrange, record, and master an album. Houck's tacking his lineage to Nelson's -- evoking an experimental but utterly unique musical style, restless but grounded in a studied sonic frameworks.
Houck begins the record with a slow, meditative track "Sun, Arise!" which spirals and spirals until, in a subtle change, the beat of an electronic sound shifts Houck into the second song, opening in his trademarked insouciant vocals: "Some say love is a burning thing / That it makes a fiery ring / But I know love as a fading thing / As fickle as a feather in a stream." Amid the eclectic electronic bounce, a heavenly pedal slide, and sawing strings, Houck's voice has rarely felt so right. "Song for Zula" is, rightly, probably the standout of the album and its role is doubly important because, far from being a tune of self-dejection, Houck seems to revel in his outsider role. While love is bemoaned for fading, it also becomes the operation of vengeance as Houck ends the track: "All that I know love as a caging thing / Just a killer come to call from some awful dream / And all you folks, you come to see / You just to stand there in the glass looking at me / But my heart is wild, and my bones are steel / And I could kill you with my bare hands if I was free." "Song for Zula" is one of those tracks that we will probably remember for years to come as its complexity, raw emotion, and jubilant tone is more like a short story than a song.
Other than that 2009 review, the second thing that Muchacho sent me running back to was the literati of indie rock. There was a time (pre-Decemberists major label move) when being intelligent was becoming the standard of indie rock. Labels were suffused with albums and bands who touted substantive, almost academic lyrics. It was a time when words seemed to come before the music. While a number of these have become institutionalized (see the aforementioned Decemberists) others have fallen by the wayside as indie rock has shifted to a more tonal, textured, atmospheric paradigm. I'm looking at you, chillwave. The impetus behind this era (and probably why it has tailed off) was to make music as substantial as literature, or at the very least informed by literature.
While Muchacho could hardly be seen to be an album that existed circa 2005, the circularity of the record (the opener is "Sun, Arise!" and the closer "Sun's Arising") lends itself to a literary sphere as does Houck's masterful lyrical compositions. See: "A New Anhedonia" (anhedonia: n. the inability to find pleasure in things most people find pleasurable) where a soaring vamp propels Houck to the evincing line "So holy I'm wasting it, like a prayer to the moon." What is just as notable as the exquisite crafting of the lyrics is Houck's singular delivery. He seems to shroud himself in every soaring instrument imaginable and carve through the bliss with his rough-hewn vocal pattern. Astonishingly, he rarely appears as the downer in the middle of the carnival, but as Muchacho shows over and over again, Houck's gift is standing on the outside of life and giving a frank appraisal of what's going on inside. It's outsider poetry, giving us access to parts of ourselves that are unexplored or, all too often, left blank.
For me, that's been the revelation of this album. And, I must add that it seems like such a tiny alteration in Houck's established musical identity -- the integration of new instrumentation, sounds, and textures transform this record into something that you cannot sleep on.