[Dead Oceans; 2013]
When Phosphorescent first broke onto the indie-folk scene in 2003, comparisons to Bob Dylan were a given with Matthew Houck’s knack for writing imagery-laced lyrics over jangly guitars, hints of Freewheelin’ Bob abound. 10-years later with his latest release Muchacho, Houck is still redefining one of Bob’s concoctions, but this time around his inspiration comes from a much different section of Dylan’s cookbook. No, it’s not country-fried Nashville Skyline nor is it the late night munchie snack of Blonde On Blonde. Instead, Muchacho takes on the essence of the seminal Infidels.
In late 1983, Infidels was heralded as Bob’s return from grace (a return from the “grace of God” in this case after two panned “religious albums”). Infidels is often considered his best album since 1975’s Blood On the Tracks. The album marked a definitive change in Bob’s approach. Rather than strumming away on his acoustic like he’d done for the better part of the past two decades, Bob stepped back and allowed the organs and synths to broaden space and time. With Mark Knopfler fiddling around on his guitar, the songs often feel spacious and airy. Of all of his albums, Infidels is his most 80s album to come out in the decade of post punk and new wave.
Don’t get me wrong, Phosphorescent’s Muchacho is not an 80s album. It’s not post punk and it’s certainly not new wave, but it does take on a new approach for Houck in terms of production. Over the past 10-years Houck has pretty much remained grounded in his barebones approach, often bare to the point of painfully hitting a raw nerve. While he did have a couple albums that leaned more toward country/Americana, a constant within his work has been a candidness that is so confessional and heartbreaking that the listening experience tends to make you feel like Houck’s psychiatrist. Just like Dylan in 83′, Houck put a twist on his approach with Muchacho, bringing in an artificiality to help dampen the blow of sincerity. Lush orchestration flourishes throughout the album and guitar licks swirl around each note like the ghost of Knopfler has returned from 83’ (no worries – Knopfler is still alive). A few tracks feature live drums, but even these are plasticized with touches of MiDi magic popping up like bubbles upon the pristine surface.
In the middle of all this beauty and space sits Houck and his distinctive voice. His nasally croak stands in stark contrast with the beauty of the music, his heartbreak still evident, even amidst the musical equivalent of Van Gogh’s “Starry Starry Night.” Just as it worked for Dylan in 83, the dichotomy of the voice and the verdant production results in a more palpable listen with the emotional heft still intact. Like Dylan learned 30 years ago, sometimes it is better to mix a little sweet with the sour.
“Song For Zula” is the “Jokerman” of the 21st Century:
Lyrically, the album also echo’s Infidels thematically. Both albums scream out a message of heartbreak and loss. Whether it be Houck singing how “I saw love disfigure me,” that his “heart’s sick,” or simply pronouncing “I’ve been fucked up and I’ve been a fool,” it’s pretty clear that on Muchacho he hasn’t steered clear of the self-loathing and pity. The difference this time around, of course, is that he’s able to blend this drunken misery and filth with production that is so sheen and stunning, that you’ll easily accept his gloom. Just as Dylan was able to turn his career around in 83’, Houck has breathed new life into his lonely, heartbreaking music.
“Terror in the Canyons” will put joy in your heart: