What strange alchemy goes into a masterwork? If you ask Phosphorescent's Matthew Houck, whose sixth long-player, the mesmerizing Muchacho, earned that high-praise description even before dozens of 2013 best-of lists suggested it, the answer is as oblique and mysterious as the record itself.
There is, however, a narrative crumb trail leading to Muchacho, albeit one made of disparate elements — "new" old analog instruments, off-the-grid Yucatan beaches, lost studios, Baudelairian excess and, looming at the trailhead, one crushing break-up. But what propelled Muchacho to its lofty rankings at Paste, the Onion's A.V. Club and Britain's Mojo, among others, is the way all its new pieces fit together and lead back to Houck's singular songwriting voice.
The profile of the Alabama-born-and-raised Houck has steadily evolved from underground house shows to magazine covers and theater rooms (he's at Neighborhood Theatre on Jan. 24 with his crack band). But Houck's musical evolution has never felt forced or haphazard because his Southern roots — embodied in his weary croak, the backwoods yelps and hollers, the beatific gospel choirs, the poetic imagery and new takes on old (country) tropes — make every sonic turn distinctly his.
Though the 35-year-old calls New York City home now, a Muscle Shoals soul and Outlaw country diet informed Houck's upbringing. You can hear it in the slow processionals and dark ballads of his early LPs for Athens-based Warm Records; it's there, too, in the entirely self-recorded Pride (his 2007 Dead Oceans debut) and his spot-on 2009 Willie Nelson covers record, To Willie.
But Houck doesn't let Southernness fence him in, which distinguishes him from the faceless Americana hordes. Muchacho, for instance, plants processed 808 beats beneath pedal-steel guitar lines and weeping fiddles, and it's like they were always meant to be heard together. Still, what's been dubbed "the Southern thing" — the dichotomy between Saturday night's good times and Sunday morning's remorse and redemption — plays a role in what makes Phosphorescent songs so compelling. That's been brought into sharper focus with the contrast between 2010's breakthrough Here's To Taking It Easy — with its Exile on Main Street riffs and Crazy Horse solos buffeted by Memphis horns — and Muchacho's darker musical hues (Houck says Eno's Apollo: Atmospheres and Soundtracks provided inspiration).
"Sonically, I was trying to make Here's to Taking it Easy a bit more like a Saturday night record, for sure," Houck says, but "if we're going to go with that analogy, I would still call them all Sunday morning songs."
Muchacho is pretty much all Sunday morning music, all the time. The title derives from a Pablo Neruda poem that implies a certain resignation about fate and the nature of lost love, which was what Houck was failing to come to grips with when he impulsively bought a plane ticket to Mexico and skipped town the next morning. With his songwriting paralyzed and his emotions raw, the quiet Tulum beaches were the scenery change he needed. Armed only with a guitar, the songs and his path forward suddenly took shape.
"I just needed to take a minute to get my head together, but the fact that it was Mexico, the way that [Muchacho] took shape from that point forward was definitely influenced by being there," Houck says, suggesting something bigger than the record's beach imagery and occasional mariachi horn flourishes. "You wind up being just a little more in touch with the rhythm of things."
Chronicling those desperate battles in real time and emerging scarred but alive on the other side gives Muchacho its cathartic power. From the depths of "A New Anhedonia" — a horn-and-pedal steel dirge lamenting the lovelorn's inability to appreciate what normally brings them joy — to the hymnal choirs of "Sun, Arise!" and "Sun's Arising," Houck details his journey with unflinching vulnerability and in powerful, sometimes spiritual imagery.
"It seems to me that a hundred human voices together is just a really beautiful thing," Houck says of the LP's "Sun" bookends, subtitled "Invocation" and "Koan," respectively. "I think it naturally lends itself to some kind of mystical or heavenly feeling."
That feeling extends throughout Muchacho, and like the few truly great break-up records, it should be experienced in its entirety. The album, and especially its transcendent break-up single, "Song for Zula," taps into the same bleeding vein — though in a more sonically diverse fashion — that made Bon Iver's For Emma, Forever Ago a hit a few years back. On Muchacho, however, the anguish is less unrelenting and suffocating. The other grief stages — anger, denial and acceptance — gnash and tear at "Zula"'s layers of swirling strings, pedal steel, piano fills worthy of Nicky Hopkins, and electro pulse.
That "Zula" has hit a nerve with listeners surprises Houck. "I was proud of writing it, I thought it was a good song, but I truly didn't expect that people would be drawn to that one," he says. "It's a rough song, you know?" And it's even rougher because Houck takes it one step further. He links the break-up back to his roots with the opening couplet from Johnny Cash, and then describes what it's like to have all this heartache play out publicly:
"Some say love is a burning thing/That it makes a fiery ring/Oh but I know love as a caging thing/Just a killer come to call from some awful dream/O and all you folks, you come to see/You just stand there in the glass looking at me/But my heart is wild. And my bones are steel/And I could kill you with my bare hands if I was free."
"My first love was lyrics, and sad songs that were telling stories," Houck says, "and that still hangs true very much for me today. It's hard for me to dig a lot of music if there's no lyrical content that is doing ... something."
Muchacho's lyrical content did plenty for Houck. Now it's doing that for others: offering you a way back home to contentment and, dare we say, even happiness.