March 13, 2013

Phosphorescent: Muchacho

Dead Oceans

As Phosphorescent, former Athenian Matthew Houck is the underdog of the forlorn folk scene. Houck's songs of humble heartache and meager hope rival Bonnie "Prince" Billy's darkest corners, curtailing the nomadic reveries just before going off the deep end and into near-comic eccentricity. The whiskey-soaked orchestrations accompanying Phosphorescent's most transcendent moments rival Magnolia Electric Co.'s stringed gothic while maintaining a coherency that's often lost by Jason Molina at his most rambling. Houck's voice isn't as off-putting as Bill Callahan's gravelly drawl, but paints as vivid a narrative as Smog at its darkest and most beautiful. With a strained set of gilded pipes that have rusted over the years—from loss, travel and imbibables—Houck tells his stories like a drunken wayward in a dive bar, romanticizing pain and wearing it like a badge of honor.

Muchacho, Phosphorescent's sixth album and fourth for the Dead Oceans imprint, could stand as the project's pinnacle, a self-raising status that peaks with each new LP. 2007's Pride translated Phil Elverum's rustic despair into an alt-folk bent on violence in nature. The LP hosted one of the project's finest moments with "Wolves," a gorgeous dirge set to lyrics that match Cormac McCarthy at his most Southern gothic. Follow-ups To Willy and Here's to Taking it Easy were decidedly lighter affairs, the former serving as Houck's homage to Willie Nelson. But Muchacho ventures back into darker territories while keeping a jovial approach to love lost and damage done.

Lead single "Song for Zula" starts off unassumingly enough, a wistful waltz seemingly tailor-made for the first dance at a wedding, charmingly produced and slow in tempo. Houck quickly fans the flames of irony, juxtaposing the mode as a bitterly resolute meditation on love's casualties by recounting, "I saw love disfigure me into something I am not recognizing."

The story continues on tracks like the jubilant "Ride On / Right On" and the revelatory "A Charm / Blade," with yelled epiphanies and chanted melodies. "The Quotidian Beasts" and "A New Anhedonia" carry the heavy-browed slant that forms the foundation of Muchacho, Houck's finest and most fully-formed LP yet.