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Phosphorescent, the pseudonym for the recording project of Alabama raised, Brooklyn based musician Matthew Houck, has been recording music under this name since 2001. Stylistically, his music is habitually hard to pin down, and his latest release, Muchacho, is no exception. Houck explores elements of folk, country, synth-pop, and experimental music all held together with the industrial strength glue of an indie rock sensibility.
The album opens with “Sun, Arise”, a song that is sedated in its Fleet Foxes like vocal harmony, but finds excitement in its use of arrpegiated synthesizers. Towards the end of the song, the vocals reach a chilling climax that foreshadows the albums ability to elicit potent emotions from the listener.
The second track and lead single for the album “Song for Zulu” is the most immediate and addictive song on the album. Folk music has a tradition of recycling well-known lyrics as a matter of making itself accessible to its audience. Houck does this in the first line of the song with a Johnny Cash lyric, “Some say love is a burning thing” from “Ring of Fire”, a relatively modern lyric. In this way, he modernizes and redefines “folk” for a contemporary audience, both conceptually in its recontextualisation of lyrics, and in a more concrete manner with its composition. The song pairs drum machines and synthesized bass with a layered and cinematic string section. Despite his best attempt at lying and singing, “Honey, I am not some broken thing”, the timbre of his voice sounds as if he is constantly on the verge of tears. The song is sure to prove to be one of the more memorable and impactful songs of the year.
“Ride On / Right On” has a self-aware ambiguity in the manner in which it should be interpreted, which is seen in the form of a pun in the title. The song is seemingly energetic, on the verge of feeling celebratory, but still feels damaged and broken. The “oos” and “woos” in-between lines seem almost sarcastic or sardonic, just like the inappropriate, maybe forced smile on the face of Houck featured on the album cover. The song is the musical equivalent of watching the ball drop on a 10 inch tv alone in a basement and feeling an unwarranted, synthetic sense of celebration. A relentless, wonky guitar panned in the right speaker seems to be at battle with the demented church organ in the left, while Houck lands somewhere in the middle, an innocent bystander victim to the altercation.
After the intricately arranged and instrumented “Terror in the Canons”, the album calms down with “A Charm / A Blade”. The song starts off understated, with subtle piano and strings, only to lead to an abrupt sonic burst in the chorus. The contrast of sound in the verse and chorus builds tension and makes for the chorus’ intensity. The contrast is stemmed not only in sheer volume and sound, but in mood as well. It revisits themes in “Ride On / Right On” with the somber verse and celebratory chorus straddling the line between self-loathing and celebration. It’s a confused a frustrated song that never quite chooses a tone, constantly forcing the listener to readjust their expectations, creating a sense of uneasiness.
Muchacho begins to make sense conceptually and thematically with the song “The New Anhedonia”. Anhedonia is a condition defined by the inability to find pleasure in things often found pleasurable. “The New Anhedonia” clarifies and unifies to the not quite celebratory/sarcastic cheerfulness in prior songs, and is also an appropriate title for the most devastatingly heart wrenching songs of the album. It feels fatigue, defeated, a feeling reinforced with lines like “All of the pleasures been avoiding me/ all of the music is boring to me” It reaches a level of darkness and solitude that has only ever been reached by Cass McCombs’ in his album Wit’s End.
The album comes full circle in with the closing track, “Sun Arising” The song uses the same vocal track from the opener, but without the excitement of the electronics, which have become replaced with nothing but a very quite guitar tremolo. At the beginning of the album, he demands the sun to rise optimistically, with excitement in the anticipation. By the end of the album, the sun begins to arise, the excitement and optimism is stripped away, and what Houck expected to be a beautiful and colorful sight is white washed and stripped of beauty. The song serves as a bleak and nihilistic conclusion to an album where Houck fails to find any sort of happiness or pleasure in the things that used to make life worth living, yet still manages to make a cohesive set of songs that is impossible not to find pleasure in.