While discussing the title of his sixth Phosphorescent album, Muchacho, Matthew Houck told CMJ that it was still a vague notion to him, not something that he could fully wrap his head around. “Maybe you call your buddy muchacho,” he said. “But it’s got a little cut to it, a little bite to it.” Houck’s music has always had a little bite to it, despite its seemingly tasteful, Americana trappings: the hushed guitars, the scraggly beard, the downtrodden imagery, the occasional horn section, the album of Willy Nelson covers. Like Bonnie “Prince” Billy or Sam Beam, Houck is familiar with the idioms and tropes of alt-country and folk, deploying them like a fisherman with different types of bait in his tackle box, but his lyrics are what distinguish him from his peers. When he bites, he’s looking to draw some blood.
That blood speckles the beautiful, windswept landscape of the record, which finds Houck refining many of the sounds he’d tried out on earlier recordings. After the sun-flecked revelry of his last album, 2010′s Here’s To Taking It Easy, Houck found himself a little fried from touring, spending lots of time locked up in his studio in Brooklyn, creating drones that were partially inspired by the ambient albums of Brian Eno, before decamping to Mexico for a while to finish writing the album’s 10 songs. While Eno’s influence isn’t easy to spot—there’s a submerged, vaguely aquatic sound to certain songs but nothing obvious—this record does feel like the product of some deep contemplation. Combining the hollowed-out emotional potency of 2007′s Pride with the musically adventurous spirit of his last two albums, Muchacho is obsessed with dualities: light and dark, peace and violence, man and beast.
The tension between these binaries is perhaps most apparent on “Song For Zula,” the album’s single and its most devastating song. Over a swirling violin loop and an echo-heavy drum beat, Houck sings of being caged and disfigured by love. He ends the song with a haunting threat: “My heart is wild. And my bones are steam/And I could kill you with my bare hands if I was free.” The relationship between passion and violence is explored throughout the record, particularly on “Terror In The Canyons (The Wounded Master)” and “A Charm/A Blade,” songs that seem to deal with the feelings and circumstances around a bad breakup, though Houck keeps things purposefully vague. By cloaking the specifics in language both mythical and mundane—at one point he sings, “I could be the morning breaking on your skin/Or I could be the devil and do it all again”—he conjures primal emotions.
But here’s the thing: This is not merely sad bastard music. The world has a lot of “dark” country music—songs engulfed in nihilism, doubt and self-pity—but Houck’s skills as a producer and as a songwriter keep the material from ever feeling dour or unrelentingly bleak. It’s melancholy, sure, but it’s the fun type of melancholy, the kind that comes with a sense of buoyancy and the occasional shit-eating grin. Houck is a master of subtle production details: He still knows how to let out a little yelp, like on “Ride On/Right On,” and his rollicking piano-playing toward the end of “The Quotidian Beasts” brings to mind Crazy Horse and other unhinged rock luminaries. These moments of levity and light don’t weaken the intensity of the violent material; they make the tough stuff hit even harder.
On his 1974 album On The Beach, Neil Young sang, “The world is turnin’/But I hope it don’t turn away.” In the same way Young found hope even at his darkest hours, Houck consistently discovers joy amidst despair. What really keeps Muchacho from turning into a depressing slog is that you always have the sense that he’s trying to better himself, to expand his horizons and to hold steady on the righteous path. As Phosphorescent continues to evolve as a project, widening its range and sharpening its lyrical acumen, that commitment has become more apparent, culminating in his best album yet. “I’ve been fucked up and I’ve been a fool,” Houck sings on the record’s centerpiece, “Muchacho’s Tune.” “But like the shepherd to the lamb/Like the wave onto the sand/I fix myself up and come to be with you.” This muchacho is always welcome.