I spent last week driving across a dusty swath of the American West, from Colorado through Wyoming, to Yellowstone and Montana, trawling the feet of the Grand Tetons and down through Utah and the red canyons. The first night, I stopped in Denver when I realized I had forgotten to bring along Muchacho, the newest record from Phosphorescent (Matthew Houck). I bought it at a record store a few blocks off the highway, filled the gas tank, and set back out as the sun set. I listened to it more than a dozen times on my roadtrip, voraciously, front to back and then through some more.
Muchacho is squally and dirt-streaked, it’s threadbare and greedy, it’s weary and pugnacious, and it is the most perfect soundtrack for that drive. Those vacant miles on the road gave me lots of time to think all of those big, unspun thoughts that cannibalize each other and themselves, unhinging their jaws to swallow their own tails and bring us back where we started. This album does the same.
This record wrestles with divergent, simultaneous truths about the brokenness and the bruises. “I am not some broken thing,” Houck howls pointedly in the second track, the stunning “Song For Zula” (which will be my song of the year), but two short songs later he is singing this simple line, that absolutely breaks my heart every time he says it:
“And now you’re telling me my heart’s sick /
…And I’m telling you I know.”
It’s exactly that messiness (and the direct engagement with it) that spills out of this record to draw me in, underneath the timeless country veneer, under the old-time two-stepping and the lonely desert songs. Everything is tangled; everything is fucked up and bleeding, aching and glowing in the summer.
I keep furrowing my brow as I swim around in this tremendous record. It’s unclear as you work through Houck’s songs if he is the cage or the one being caged, if he is the bloody actor or the stage, if he needs to fix himself up to come and be with you, or is a mewing newborn, just seeing colors for the first time. Is it love that’s a killer come to call from some awful dream, or is he himself the one who would kill you with his bare hands if he were free? I find it fascinating. I read his words like I read poems, letting the unsettledness cling and press on me. They keep knocking me out on this album.
“Terror In The Canyon” is one of the most conflicted songs on the album, and I love it for that, Houck being a thousand different contradictory things from one line of the song to the next. Lately all I want to do in my favorite relationships is to plumb those tumultuous volcanic waters inside of us, where we pull in seven different ways and we are all contained inside one skin. “And I’m not so sorry for the heartwreck,” Houck sings, presumedly to the person he’s just left, “but for each season left unblessed – the new terror in the canyons, the new terror in our chests.” I read something parallel this week from John O’Donohue: “The greatest friend of the soul is the unknown.” I feel like something in that new terror might actually be a blessing, and Houck knows it and I know it.
I hit a few of those massive, glorious late-summer rainstorms out on the plains, my favorite one at sunset whose aftermath is pictured up at the top of this post. It was during those times that I felt like I was right in the middle of the lyrics: “Between the shadow and the storm, a little pup was being born / a little whelp without his horns — o my, o my.” This is an album that’s right there in the bloody genesis struggle between the shadows and the wild, humid, electric storm. Each footfall slips first into one realm, then just as quickly slides into the other. There are so many vulnerable moments of beauty on this album that make me gasp, and so many punches to the face.
The biggest, rambliest, most sharply tangled song on this album is perfectly named “The Quotidian Beasts.” The song starts rhythmic and bright: the morning breaking, the drawing of a bath. Houck tells an allegory of a beast with claws, with familiar black eyes (depression?); he knew she was coming and she was here at last.
I said “It’s you took your claws,
you slipped ‘em under my skin
There’s parts that got outside honey
I want to put ‘em back in
We’ve been playing like children, honey
now we’ll play it like men
Those parts that got outside
I’m gonna put them back in.”
By the end of this struggle of a fable, those quotidian, daily beasts have transformed like Gremlins exposed to water, and are now something altogether different and terrifying. The song ends after seven minutes as a huge Zeppelinesque epic that has exploded into a fire that just burned your house down. It is the perfect summation of what Houck is doing on this record, over and over again.
The first and last tracks on the record are seamless twins, the opening track “An Invocation, An Introduction” and the last “A Koan, An Exit.” The songs run along the same riverbed (making it easy to let the album loop back to track one after the last song finishes, like the beast that eats its own tail) but the more I listen to it, the more I realize how vastly different the last song is, how it feels so much more weary. After all the yelps and the fistfights, some of the brambles have been broken off. The kitchen is scattered with broken dishes. We’re rattling our instruments and raising our voices, and there are these stunning glints and sunflares that glow, but the speakers are blown.
It started golden, gleaming, resplendent. It ends a beautiful ramshackle mess. And we’ll do it again tomorrow, and next year.
We’ll do it ’til the end.
Muchacho (Dead Oceans, 2013)