The lead single of Phosphorescent’s new album ‘C’est La Lie’ finds Matthew Houck sitting at a bar in New England, and considering another beer. As each component of the song snaps into life, the peel of lead guitar, the percussive effect of the strummed acoustic guitar, the airy gospel backing vocal, you can hear the sunshine streaming through the door of the New England bar. It’s the most contented song he’s ever written, on his most contented album.
Which is not to say that it is the happiest. Phosphorescent have got great joy in the past from writing about, well, joy. Songs like It’s Hard to Be Humble (When You’re from Alabama) from 2010’s ‘Here’s to Taking It Easy’ and Song for Zula from the excellent ‘Muchacho’ in 2013 were filled with joy and nerves and tension and defiance. Houck’s songs have never shied away from big moments. Wolves fighting in the snow, holy touches from gnarled hands, these are evocative images tied to big emotions. ‘C’est La Vie’ is interested in the same emotions, but examines them from a knowing distance.
Not only is ‘C’est La Vie’ the most contented Phosphorescent album, it could also be most straightforwardly beautiful. It is an album full of space and perspective. On C’est La Vie 2, The pulsing atmospherics recalls the effect of Song For Zula but Houck sounds a million miles away form the intensity of that song. “I waited for days for your voice to answer to me” he sings, “I don’t wait up for days for your voice to answer to me no more”. As his title suggests, he is calm and philosophical. On past albums, this would be a tortured lament but here the catharsis has come and gone, and the song is thoughtful and lovely.
Houck’s tradition is rooted in Americana, country and folk music. Long before he was experimenting with South American rhythms on ‘Muchacho’ he was writing simple songs on an acoustic guitar, and releasing a Willie Nelson tribute album. This bent for the craft of songwriting is very much in evidence here. Although they are lovingly varnished with gorgeous pedal-steel guitar, occasional twinklings of honky-tonk piano and soulful backing vocals, you can easily imagine Houck playing almost all of these songs solo on an acoustic guitar. Beneath the sheen, they are three-chord simple and carried by their uncomplicated melodies.
There is one exception. Now, Phosphorescent may have developed a reputation for an ability to synthesize musical styles but I’m willing to bet no one expected that to include Madchester rave. Album centrepiece, Around the Horn, has John Squire guitars rushing like a wind tunnel over a motorik beat for 8 minutes. The trademark cracks in Houck’s voice are filled by layering his vocal until we rather expect him to start singing about resurrection and adoration. Instead, he opts to continue singing about changing perspectives: “over the bridge, under the bridge, over the bridge” he croons over the noise.
The understated There From Here continues toying with space, with Houck abandoning actual place names in favour of pronouns, more interested in singing about the emotion created in the space between places than the places themselves. When he does get specific with places it is to represent distance. On Christmas Down Under, which sways along on that pedal-steel again, he’s flipping the perspective on Christmas. Idling in a tiki bar and letting his mind wander to doves and dragons, he is luxuriating in the experience of being far from home at that time of year. The cymbals crash gently in the background like the waves breaking on the shore outside.
Apart from the minute long intro Black Moon / Silver Waves, which swells into existence like a kind of folk-rock version of the PS 1 start-up noise, the 9 songs on this album are long and careful. These Rocks and My Beautiful Boy are each slow ruminations on significant parts of Houck’s life without getting too specific. Sparser than a lot of the album, and more centred around that disintegrating voice, they probe at big moments without inhabiting them.
Back at that bar in New England though, and Houck is still thinking about another beer. As the song bounces happily on, he daydreams about the woman playing piano. It never gets much further than that though, because when you are this relaxed there’s nothing more important at stake than the (admittedly important) decision whether or not to get another beer.
For Matthew Houck, the stakes are usually high, the wounds tender, the heart racing. It wasn’t clear he had an album like this in him: philosophical, satisfying and mature. But then, as ‘C’est La Vie’ indicates, it goes to show you never can tell.