C’est La Vie is not to be missed.
A lot has changed for Matthew Houck in the five years since he last stepped out under the Phosphorescent moniker. A move to Nashville, a couple kids and some time off have allowed him to reassess his musical persona following the commercial and critical success that was Muchacho, a record that helped establish him as one of the best in his field. Nearly two decades in, he finally seems to have settled into himself both musically and lyrically, largely sticking with the roots-y sound that crept up in his work more than 10 years ago and helped make that last album such a success.
With C’est La Vie, Houck ups the pop-influenced quotient, retaining the accessibility of Muchacho and pushing it into an almost Paul Simon-esque direction, particularly with the bouncy, borderline ebullient “New Birth in New England.” It’s a sweetly affecting boy-meets-girl number that refrains from both cloying clichés and overt navel-gazing in favor of a series of personal, yet universally relevant sentiments. Simon is an apt comparison given Houck’s penchant for swinging from easily identifiable to lyrically abstract and almost evasively poetic in his approach to songwriting. Indeed, “New Birth in New England,” if given a slightly more South African feel would not have sounded out of place on an album like Graceland or even Hearts and Bones, an oft-overlooked classic in and of itself.
As has been his stock and trade, the majority of C’est La Vie plays it calm, cool and collected, rarely rising above a conversational exchange. “There From Here” offers up an introspective self-analysis in a series of abstract poeticisms as he sings, “If you’d’ve seen me last year/ I’d’ve said, ‘I can’t even see you there from here’,” before paraphrasing Rumi and advising to “do it like them Romans do, I guess.” The song’s final verse is classic Simon: “She made a sound like fire/ Through telephonic wires/ And I had waited all night long for this/ Was humming soft and low/ Was come to let me know/ That I had waited all my life on this.”
Of course Houck is his own artistic self and these comparisons are somewhat oblique given the stylistic disparity between the two, however there’s a sense of lyrical maturity on C’est La Vie that few of his contemporaries seem able to manage with similar deftness and ease. Retaining a penchant for long, wandering contemplative tracks, C’est La Vie allows each cut to unfold at its own pace, always in service to the song rather than any sort of inflated ego.
At over eight minutes, “Around the Horn” is the best example of this, playing out suite-like as Houck applies the exploratory metaphor inherent in the title to his own recent geographical relocation. “Think it would settle down?/ If we would settle down/ Yeah, I wanna make it right,” he practically sighs, underscoring the resigned feelings brought on by a life spent on the road searching for something that can never really be found while in constant motion. This idea is further explored on “These Rocks,” a slow-moving gospel-tinged number featuring one of the more matter-of-fact bits of self-analysis on the album: “I was drunk for a decade/ Been thinkin’ of puttin’ that stuff away.”
“My Beautiful Boy” rides an uplifting, almost tropical groove to create a 21st century update of John Lennon’s similarly-titled ode to his son. “I know this world ain’t never fair/ I know there’s trouble everywhere,” he sings, a sentiment any new parent can relate to given the uncertainty of our modern world, before bringing himself back into the moment and focusing in on what matters most: “But I see your body lying there/ I see the moonlight in your hair/ Hey, you got nothing to doubt or fear/ Not as long as I’m standing here.” While obviously a deeply personal piece, its universal sentiments resonate loud and clear with those in similar circumstances, finding themselves faced with similar doubts and fears, all of which can be assuaged simply be embracing the here and now and soaking up the beautiful, unconditional love afforded by our children.
Not nearly as big in terms of ambitions and musical statements as Muchacho, C’est La Vie is instead a confident, knowingly adult record made by a man who’s been put through his paces and knows well enough to embrace that which he has and forget all that other noise and distractions. It’s a fine addition to an already stellar catalog, offering up that which fans have come to expect, while also showing the artist maturing along with his subject matter. C’est La Vie is not to be missed.