It doesn’t seem it but three years have now passed since Phosphorescent’s breakthrough release ‘Here’s to taking it Easy’. That’s something that Matthew Houck has not been doing and his latest release ‘Muchacho’ is a testament to a journey he has travelled, one that has taken him to some of life’s lowest ebbs before resurfacing with Muchacho, his redemption offering.
Eighteen months touring his last album left Houck ‘fried’, returning to Brooklyn Navy Yard studio he began to explore some ambient pieces he had been developing which had been inspired by listening to Brian Eno. There was a desire to take it all down a couple of notches so he got hold of a load of analogue gear and immersed himself into sonic territory…that included learning electronics in order to fix faulty equipment. “I ended up spending a lot of time learning about stuff like impedance matching and ohms,” he laughs. “I really got quite nerdy about how it all worked.”
This album could have gone in so many different directions at that point but fate played a mysterious unpleasant hand in the guise of a domestic crisis which left him needing a new apartment in an already tightly squeezed New York. The pressure of the situation led to him checking out of society as he headed to the Yucutan Pensinsula in Mexico where he spent some time holed up in an off-the-grid hacienda where he began to write and develop the songs for the album.
There is no escaping it the electronics are initially the most striking change and they are also a cloak in some respects. Muchacho still maintains trademarks, it’s as if you went for a break to comeback to find the stage backdrop had been changed but the actor is still there, those chords still empathize with his past work but the songs have become stronger, more intentional and deliberate. Once you get over the initial surprise you’ll soon realise that this is not all foreign territory. Four tracks in and Terror in the Canyons provides more familiar points of reference which are enhanced with a fuller sound over the more ambient sounding tracks and familiarity builds still further on the chilled ‘The Quotidian Beast’ and ‘A New Anhedonia’ one of the greyer songs on the album on which Houck sings of losing his passion for music, a song from the winter months of depression following his lengthy tour.
Despite the overall pitch of songs there is a brightness and hope to the album, on ‘Muchacho’s Tune’ he sings “I was slow to understand, this river’s bigger than I am…I’ve been fucked up and I’ve been a fool” which ends with “like the shepherd to the lamb, like the wave onto the sand…fix myself up, come and be with you”. Likewise, the electronic textures and sonics have an almost deliberate brightness to them throughout, pedal-steel guitar brings a shimmer of reflection rather than a country leaning that we’d maybe associate with it on previous releases.
That brightness initially appears at odds with some his lyrics, so whilst he admits he’s sick of love on ‘Song for Zula’ the musical backdrop whilst being the perfect carrier for his sorrow has an overwhelming acceptance of the inevitable…that life goes on. That theme brackets the whole album with the opening invocation ‘Sun, Arise’ and closes with Sun’s Arising (A Koan, an exit). It gives the album an enduring strength of spirit. Intentional or not it makes it such a masterful and honest album…melancholic but also tinged by the welcoming sun of a new day. A stunning album that sees Houck at the peak of his creativity, simply brilliant!