Here’s To Taking Things Easy. It may have been the title of Phosphorescent’s last album, but it’s obviously not a mantra that Matthew Houck believes in. 2013 marks his 10th anniversary as a recording artist, in which time he’s released six albums, supported the likes of The National, and, of late, become something of a fixture on Hollywood soundtracks.
Houck’s sixth full-length album takes the mournful country-rock seemingly perfected on Here’s To Taking Things Easy and runs with it, creating his most realised record yet. Apparently written in the midst of some kind of personal crisis (where Houck had to find a new place to live in New York, and ended up buying a one-way ticket to Mexico to finish writing the album in a beach hut on the Yucatán Peninsula), the songs collected here don’t betray any mental turmoil: instead, there seems to be a peacefulness and tranquility running through Muchacho.
And yet it’s a tranquility with a deep sense of sadness bubbling underneath. The rather unwieldy titled Sun, Arise! (An Invocation An Introduction) makes for a gorgeous opener, with Houck’s multi-tracked vocals sounding reminiscent of Fleet Foxes, before floating into the stunning Song For Zula, the type of track that makes you stop everything and just bathe in its beauty for seven glorious minutes. From its opening crib of a Johnny Cash lyric, to the luscious string arrangements, right through to Houk’s fragile yet passionate voice, every element comes together perfectly to create one of the finest songs you’ll hear all year.
After such a strong opener, Muchacho never quite hits the same heights, but it certainly comes close. The Quotidian Beasts is a magnificent epic that, while being the sonic opposite to Song For Zula, manages to be equally affecting. The guitars clank as hard as a Neil Young riff but that undercurrant of melancholy is never too far away. And most noticeably, as the song flies towards its climax, its possible to hear an element of catharsis in Houck’s songwriting.
It’s hard to see why Muchacho wouldn’t capture the hearts of those enchanted by Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes or Calexico – each track here would comfortably nestle alongside any of the aforementioned’s back catalogues. Terror In The Canyons (The Wounded Master) could be an out-take from Ryan Adams‘ Jacksonville City Nights, with its weeping pedal-steel guitar, while the near title track of Muchacho’s Tune is a painfully honest plea for redemption. It’s impossible not to experience goosebumps when you hear Houck’s voice crack at the line “I’ve been fucked up and I’ve been a fool”.
Occasionally, Muchacho just falls short of brilliance – Ride On/Right On doesn’t quite hit the same mark as the rest of the album, as its repetitive chorus should be hypnotic but quickly becomes repetitive, and A New Anhedeonia, while undeniably lovely, hovers a bit too close to lachrymosity for comfort. However, when the uplifting tones of the closing Sun’s Arising (which nicely bookmarks the album’s opener Sun, Arise) roll around, it’s impossible not to believe that Matthew Houck has created his finest work yet. He deserves it to propel him into the mainstream at last.