Phosphorescent’s sole proprietor, Matthew Houck, begins his sixth proper full-length album, Muchacho, with a bit of a fake-out. The ethereal album-opener, “Sun, Arise! (An Invocation, An Introduction)”—with its multi-layered harmonized vocals and burbling, bubbling keyboards bordering on space-age—indicates that perhaps Houck is feeling a little Fleet Foxy this time out. Or perhaps he’s hoping to revisit his 2007 effort, Pride, an album whose songs Oxford American aptly described as sounding as if they were being “backed up by choirs of miserable ghosts, the percussion often knocking and rattling like stuff shifting around in a room at night.”
Phosphorescent’s next album, 2010’s Here’s To Taking It Easy, was his breakout, and Muchacho is about as opposite of that title as a follow-up can get. A companion title to describe Muchacho might be Here’s To Taking The Hits As They Come. Muchacho is also Houck’s most accomplished release to date—his most heartrending and life-affirming, equal parts lost-love devastation and hip-swaying, horn-led exultation.
Well, maybe not equal parts. “Song For Zula” is a mournful beast of burden, Houck’s lyrics stealing the show from the string section and bass-as-heartbeat supporting actors. “I will not open myself up this way again,” he sings at one point, before laying it all out at song’s end: “So some say love is a burning thing / that it makes a fiery ring / Oh, but I know love as a caging thing / just a killer come to call from some awful dream.”
Elsewhere, “Terror In The Canyons (The Wounded Master)” employs a piano-and-pedal-steel country shuffle as the new foil for Houck’s world-weary warble. Not one for missed opportunities, he sings, “But now you’re telling me my heart’s sick / And I’m telling you I know / And you’re telling me you’re leaving / And I’m telling you to go.” Houck is usually pretty reticent about explaining his lyrics, but when describing the sounds that eventually became Muchacho for Spin, he admits, “My life, to be honest, sort of fell apart.”
While all of Muchacho isn’t a wrist-slitting affair, it is, apparently, the sound of a man dealing with the consistent and consistently frustrating ups and downs of life. “The Quotidian Beasts” plays out like the spiritual brethren of Songs: Ohia’s “Almost Was Good Enough.” And on “Muchacho’s Tune,” when Houck sings “I’ve been fucked up / and I’ve been a fool” over a marching bass, spare strums, mournful pedal steel, and noncommittal piano, it’s as if the arrangement agrees that shit got pretty real back there. Yet when the horns step in to lead the way, everyone must move on if they’re to accomplish anything. Houck admitted as much when he explains, “A lot of this record is about getting something of what you want and still having your ass handed to you by the world. Like, ‘That’s how it is, muchacho. Handle it.’”
Handling it isn’t a simple proposition, of course, and the eight songs following “Sun, Arise!” sound nothing like their introducer as they work through a rather exhausting set of emotions. Unsurprising, then, is album-ending sister song, “Sun’s Arising (A Koan, An Exit),” which also has little in common with those eight songs sandwiched in between. The bookends wipe the mind clean in preparation, then cleanse the palate in conclusion. They’re necessary and refreshing, much like moving on.