The break-up album is a conceit well weathered (and positively abused by Taylor Swift) at this stage. Loves are lost, musical efforts shared, fans won (though admittedly, they can be lost too. Some guys just can’t catch a break). Yet though many have turned their suffering into art, few have done so as beautifully as Matthew Houck.
Houck’s musical canon is no stranger to haunting melodies, bittersweet sentiments and cracked vocals. Performing as Phosphorescent since 2003, highlights have thus far included the minimalist, melancholic Gospel of Pride, and To Willie, the Alabama indigene’s ode to fellow Southerner Willie Nelson. Muchacho, Houck’s sixth album, adapts the Americana blues and sincere poignancy of these previous outputs and restyles them into an equally gorgeous offering.
The story is this: last winter, Houck’s relationship disintegrated, forcing him to find a new home and studio with next to no warning. “In the middle of a bit of a freak out”, Houck booked a plane ticket to Mexico for a flight that was departing three hours later. There, in a hut on the beach, with his guitar, in the space of a week, he crafted the songs that would eventually comprise Muchacho.
The new constituents of Phosphorescent’s developing style are incorporated into ‘Sun, Arise! (An Invocation, an Introduction)’. Arpeggiated synths, the kind that would fit perfectly over a Carl Sagan documentary, are laid under a cherubic, choral refrain of “Ease, ease it all”. Such blissful, blithe harmonies, however, fail to set the emotional tone. ‘Song for Zula’ blossoms into life with delicate, pulsating drum machines, strings that sound like singing glasses and a nod to Johnny Cash. Six minutes 11 seconds may seem a slightly excessive length for a song so simply sewn together, but Houck’s ardent, haunting delivery of devastating lyrics is truly engrossing.
“Then I saw love disfigure me into something I did not recognise” … “Oh, but I know love as a caged being / Just a killer come to call from some awful dream”
Finely crafted permutations of the country influences that were explored on Pride and To Willie surface again in the jangling bells and yelps of ‘Ride On/Right On’, the yawning melody and breezy piano of ‘Terror in the Canyons (The Wounded Master)’. On ‘Mucacho’s Tune’, these blushes of country-rock coalesce with the electronic elements with which Houck has been experimenting; over wobbling fairground synths his cracked vocal is helplessly poignant – “I’ve been fucked up and I’ve been a fool”. The song shows yet again how breathtakingly Houck can channel undiluted emotion, as he sings of desperate desires to “fix myself up and come and be with you”.
Muchacho finishes where it begins, in a warming cascade of hymnal group vocals. The album: a cleansing. Houck: regenerated, renewed.