More than one critic has compared Matthew Houck’s sixth LP under the moniker Phosphorescent to Blood on the Tracks. Indeed, much like that classic Dylan album, Muchacho is a record about heartache and renewal. It’s a testament to Houck’s immense talents that comparing him to Dylan only scratches the surface of his music’s depth. Mucacho invokes the spirit of Fleet Foxes (“Sun, Arise!”), U2 (“Song for Zula”), Warren Zevon (“The Quotidian Beasts”) and Calexico (“Down to Go”). Houck is also dedicated to straightforward country (“Terror in the Canyons”) and mariachi music (“Muchacho’s Tune”) in an unyielding, non-ironic manner.
There’s a spirit of sincerity at the heart of Muchacho’s lyrics as well. When Houck recorded this album, he was beaten down in Mexico, weary from an emotionally draining tour and a failed relationship. The record finds the songwriter trying to come to terms with the complexities and mysteries of love, singing, “I saw love disfigure me/ Into something I am not recognizing.” At times, his depiction of love’s joys and pains are emotionally direct (“Some say love is a burning thing”), whereas other times they are more poetically ambiguous (“I was the bleeding actor/ And I was the stage”). Houck tempers his abstract philosophizing with beautifully concrete images of nature (“I saw the moonlight’s mirrored glow/ On that old city’s dirty snow/ I sat there feeling low/ Oh, my, oh my”), as if expressing the Romantic notion that nature can reflect and reinforce our own emotional states.
The singer-songwriter takes us to dark spaces for much of the record’s 46-minute running time. But he also leaves open the possibility of hope and healing. “Like the shepherd to the lamb/ Like the wave onto the land/ I’ll fix myself up/ To come and be with you,” he sings. On “Down to Go,” Houck reflects on the relationship between art and real-life struggles (“You say, ‘you’ll spin your heartache into gold’”). It’s clear that Houck has been through a lot, but with his rough, pushed-past-the-breaking-point voice, you can hear him channeling his demons into life-affirming music. Muchacho, with its musical prowess and deep, reflective lyrics, is a career-defining record from an already well-respected artist. – Jacob Adams