PHOS­PHO­RES­CENT C’Est La Vie DEAD OCEANS

9/10

UNCUT - - New Al­bums - By Al­lan Jones

Matthew Houck’s can­did ninth stretches out.

Ask him about the ninth al­bum he’s recorded as Phos­pho­res­cent and Matthew Houck might tell you C’est La Vie was an al­bum in­spired by alien ge­ogra­phies, trans­for­ma­tive cir­cum­stance. Change, in other words. What brought him from where he was to where he is, very dif­fer­ent places, in­clud­ing mar­riage, chil­dren, mov­ing to Nashville, nearly dy­ing. But let’s back this thing up briefly. Go back, I mean, to De­cem­ber 2013. With Christ­mas com­ing, chest­nuts roast­ing and all, Phos­pho­res­cent played four blow-theroof-off shows at the Mu­sic Hall Of Wil­liams­burg, in Brook­lyn, a tri­umphant home­com­ing af­ter eight months tour­ing be­hind re­cent al­bum, Mucha­cho. The shows were taped, more than 10 hours of mu­sic even­tu­ally edited down to the 2CD Live At The Mu­sic Hall.

The al­bum cov­ered a decade of Phos­pho­res­cent mu­sic, seemed like a sum­mit ap­proached and a peak reached, a ca­reer sum­ma­tion, the end of some­thing. Houck ad­mit­ted to the same feel­ing when I spoke to him just be­fore the al­bum came out in 2015. Much about his life had al­ready changed. He’d fallen in love, mar­ried, moved to Nashville, be­come a fa­ther. He seemed happy, con­tent. so much of his mu­sic to date had come from love’s dark ditch, heart­break and frac­tured ro­mance, you won­dered what his new songs might be about. I tried not to imag­ine him sit­ting on his Ten­nessee porch lis­ten­ing to Planet Waves or some­thing about two cats in a yard by Willie Nash and de­cid­ing hymns to un­likely do­mes­tic­ity might be the way to go.

There’s some ev­i­dence to sug­gest this is the way things might ac­tu­ally have gone if Houck along the way hadn’t al­most died from menin­gi­tis; noth­ing like a near-death ex­pe­ri­ence to bring a cloud to the pret­ti­est sky, how­ever bright with prom­ise. “C’est La Vie No 2”, for in­stance, is a song writ­ten around the con­tra­dic­tions of who Houck was and who he has be­come. “I wrote all night, like the fire of my words could burn a hole up to heaven,” he sings over pump­ing key­boards, a bop­ping rhythm. “I don’t write all night burn­ing holes up to heaven no more,” he goes on, ev­i­dently a changed man, his wilder in­stincts house-trained. “New Birth In New Eng­land” is an even more con­spic­u­ous tes­ta­ment to his new cir­cum­stance, one verse re­call­ing a chance en­counter that turns into love, an­other the birth of a child. The track has the glo­ri­ous lilt of vin­tage Paul si­mon – “Mother And Child Re­union”, per­haps, or “Me And Julio (Down By The school­yard)” – lifted by a gor­geous ca­lypso breeze, some­thing blow­ing in from the Caribbean. “There From Here” sim­i­larly finds Houck ad­just­ing to his new self, caught at a point where you are not yet the bet­ter per­son you are try­ing to be. The anx­ious fa­ther, per­haps, of “My Beau­ti­ful Boy”, a pro­tec­tive lul­laby, Houck watch­ing his son asleep, gripped by the mor­tal ter­ror of the boy dy­ing, search­ing and not find­ing him in heaven, the af­ter­life not quite as ad­ver­tised, the mu­sic here lush, trem­bling, an­guished.

Houck’s pre­vi­ously been a metic­u­lous stu­dio per­fec­tion­ist, play­ing many of the in­stru­men­tal tracks him­self, bring­ing in mu­si­cians for spe­cific parts as needed. If C’est La Vie was recorded in the same man­ner, Houck’s at least found a way to make the tracks sound like they’re be­ing played by peo­ple who are in the same room at the same time, where ear­lier you might have thought of iso­la­tion booths, baf­fle boards, over­dubbed so­los, im­ported drum tracks, the whole thing built from scratch and parts. The eight­minute “Around The Horn”, a mo­torik chug rem­i­nis­cent of Wilco’s “spi­ders”, sounds like a spon­ta­neous live groove. It’s not quite a jam, but his out­stand­ing reg­u­lar band sound un­typ­i­cally lib­er­ated. It in­flates over a fi­nal few min­utes into some­thing uniquely epic, one crescendo af­ter an­other, a swarm of voices, gui­tars, seething syn­the­sis­ers, re­lent­less key­boards and en­gulf­ing noise. The weird, cu­ri­ous, enig­matic “Christ­mas Down Un­der” as­pires to a more stud­ied, slow-burn grandeur. Pedal steel and elec­tric gui­tar in soar­ing uni­son re­call the dizzy at­mos­pheres of ear­lier Phos­pho­res­cent clas­sic “Los An­ge­les”. Lyri­cally, it’s pretty baf­fling where “These Rocks”, one of the al­bum’ stand­out tracks, is the most openly con­fes­sional song Houck has writ­ten, set to a churchy mu­si­cal swell, con­gre­ga­tional and heal­ing, the sound of a life­time bur­den lifted by love.

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