Bona Fide Folk
Muchacho, the sixth album from Alabaman virtuoso Phosphorescent (also known as Matthew Houck), is filled to the brim with candid, heartfelt songs about love, sadness and redemption, permeated by a youthful, hopeful energy appropriate to its name. Houck composed the album after a meditative stint in Mexico, recording highly textured, almost orchestral arrangements that range from quirky, synthetic folk to rambling country blues. And even though it was recorded in the urban jungles of Brooklyn, Muchacho evokes the sun-soaked deserts of Mexico, tumbleweed towns and big western skies.
The album follows a diurnal rhythm, beginning and ending with “Sun, Arise! (An Invocation, An Introduction)” and “Sun’s Arising (A Koan, An Exit),” two transcendental hymnals where futuristic synths bubble and swell, sweeping you through the golden light of sunrises and sunsets. “Sun, Arise!” is a paean to morning, a song to ease you into the day, as Houck employs studio magic to multiply his single voice into a polyphonic choir, à la Fleet Foxes.
Once these preliminaries are over, Houck maintains an atmospheric, ethereal sound on “Song for Zula,” using layers of electronic effects and violins to tell a tale about the personification of love. Here, Houck’s vocals are vulnerable and reedy, high and thin. His voice cracks and rasps, but it’s this tenuous tone, this shaky crooning, that helps make Phosphorescent’s music captivating. Not many musicians can write about intense emotion without resorting to worn-out cliches or trite metaphors, but Houck does this with grace and sincerity, as he shows throughout Muchacho.
After “Zula,” the album transitions effortlessly into a slew of country-blues tunes, starting with the skewered blues riffs, shaking percussion, and addictively simple stomping beat of “Ride On / Right On,” where Houck punctuates each line with an endearing little staccato “woo!,” small whelps that seem to say he’s clearly enjoying himself. On “A Charm / A Blade,” likewise, a folksy guitar melds with strings and subtle horns, and Houck transforms his voice into a choir once more, accompanied by a big refrain ringing in triumphantly, before it settles back down in a perfectly orchestrated decrescendo. Other tracks aren’t quite as exuberant, though: “Terror in the Canyons (The Wounded Master)” and “Muchacho’s Tune” are more somber. “Muchacho’s Tune,” a ballad of wailing steel guitars ambling along in a slowly rollicking waltz, blends country and urban imagery in a lament about sadness and solitude. “I’ve been fucked up and I’ve been a fool, / but like shepherds to the land, / like waves on to the sand, / I’ve fixed myself up to come and be with you,” Houck crows.
While Muchacho does lose some of its luster on the final three tracks, this is overall a meticulously composed album, one that overflows with a rare sincerity and honesty, and well worth a few listens.