phosphorescent

In an interview about his new release, Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck described the title as something of a self-rebuke: “If you see someone who is getting uppity, you might just say to them, ‘Hey, muchacho, settle down.’ I was in Mexico, by myself, feeling pretty raw, and I remembered a line in a Neruda poem somewhere. I can’t even remember what it was, but it was something like, ‘This is how it is, muchacho.’” It doesn’t take long in the album to get the sense that he felt Neruda was talking to him, that Muchacho is complementary to its predecessor, aptly named, Here’s to Taking It Easy. Houck seems to be saying that taking it easy isn’t easy, that its repercussions are as costly as they are, well, fun. You get this in the press footage and the album cover, these mid- and post-romp images of a cowboy-met-Brooklyn, laughing (and drinking, and smoking, and bathing) away the coming morning.

But, despite this being the closest Willie Nelson-thematic that will ever appear well-reviewed on Pitchfork, it is so allowed because Houck is so much else. His country roots are molten. The pedal steel is still there, the beery vocals, but it’s always floating in this ancient, hymnic ether that Houck has made his. Muchacho—a name that seems to naturally conjure an Old West cantina, or a Jimmie Rodgers train song—is bookended with a morning Invocation and Exit, “Sun Arise.” It’s all very primordial, reminiscent of 2007’s Pride and 2005’s Aw Come Aw Wry, with the whoops and howls of beasts, with the escalating and dissonant creature-harmonies. Here’s to Taking It Easy had gone a different direction, bringing easy, bouncy-bass pop-piano melodies and Big Easy brass into the equation. It all seemed a bit tongue-in-cheek, though—Houck’s vocals are always the great regulator, and you get the feeling that all the good times are somehow underpinned by something darker.

That quiet tonal inkling of dissatisfaction in Taking It Easy crescendoes in Muchacho. The theme here seems to be a confrontation of cost and consequence, much of which can be summed up by anhedonia, the sudden disappearance of pleasure from pleasurable things.

Out in the moonlight on a half-bended knee / I said, “O now, cousin, Hej, what’s happened to me.” // All of the colors I couldn’t believe / I called out, “Now, cousin, are you foolin with me?” / All of the pleasures now avoiding me / All the music now boring to me.

With Muchacho, many of the old outlaw tropes—the life of the party, the laundry list of life mistakes, heartbreaks, canyon roads—are still in use after Phosphorescent’s Willie covers tribute, but the tropes have become interior and psychologized. Rather than avoiding the settled life in pursuit of pleasure, Houck sees that pleasure evades at every turn. He longs for staying power, and everything has left him. Heartbreak, loss have become “the new terror in the canyons / the new terror in our chests.”

The “hit” of the record is “Song for Zula,” which is a new sound for the band. The electro-orchestral pulse, the 80s drum beat, somehow works with the first line, a fist up to a Cash reference:

Some say love is a burning thing / That it makes a fiery ring / Oh, but I know love / As a fading thing / Just as fickle as a feather in a stream // See, honey, I saw love, see, it came to me / It put its face up to my face so I could see / Oh, and I saw love disfigure me / Into something I’m not recognizing.

Houck describes love as a “caging” thing, “a killer come to call from some awful dream.” This isn’t a subversive, catchy love-as-death kind of deconstruction—it is agony. The song seems to be on to the fact that love, by its very nature, constrains the beastly wills of man—and that man’s power-hunger for self-protection, for a kill, is bound by love. And it’s not an enjoyable experience, this caging. As Houck sings, exasperated, “I will not open myself up this way again.”

“Muchacho’s Tune” is the closest thing to a cowboy song, with the O my, O mys and the mariachi trumpet, and the analogous talk of rivers to life. Here we get something of a theme song, an image of trying to keep up with a river that’s “bigger than I am / running faster than I can / tho Lord I’ve tried.” The song petitions God or the river or something bigger to “Roll away the stone” in this time of success:

Found some fortune, found some fame / Found they cauterized my veins / Yea, I’ve been f***ed up / I’ve been a fool // But like the shepherd to the lamb / Like the wave unto the sand / I’ll fix myself up to come and be with you.

In an invocation for his own resurrection, the song looks ironically inward, for the fool to “fix himself up.” This is the descriptor of the muchacho: the guy, that guy, who can’t understand that he’s dead when he’s dead—who will still continue to try to force the hand of a river that’s wider than he is. The final song before the exit, “Down To Go,” is the closest thing to resignation and surrender we see from this muchacho. In contrast to the whole “refiner’s fire” spin on suffering, Houck isn’t having any of it—it still hurts, but what choice does he have in the matter but to lean into it?

You say, “Oh, you’ll spin this heartache into gold,” / And I suppose, I ain’t much choice now, do I tho? / See I can’t wake every morning babe / All aching and ornery babe / All jaded and thorny babe, no, I’m down to go.