For his first album in five years, Matthew Houck puts fatherhood and a move to Nashville to good use on songs that are sly and wry and allow his voice to cut through intricate arrangements.
Maybe it was Pro Tools. Perhaps it was the post-Napster access explosion. Or it may have been the slow spread of Neutral Milk Hotel, Wilco, or even Bright Eyes. But at some point after the turn of the millenium, every block and every burgh seemed to sprout its own home-recording, achy-voiced strummer, ready to reorient their tunes with field recordings, hip-hop edits, swirling arrangements, Max/MSP processes, or a personal Wrecking Crew of session musicians. It was all personal and wonderful—or, sometimes, simply forgettable.
Matthew Houck emerged into into a moment seemingly glutted with often-bearded songwriters eager to deconstruct and expand themselves, from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon to Iron & Wine’s Sam Beam. Houck arrived with a thin but instantly recognizable creak, somewhere in the neighborhood of Will Oldham, and an Elephant 6 auteur’s sense of scope. For the past 15 years, Phosphorescent’s discography has pivoted among arrangement concepts for that voice, from the spare colors of his 2003 debut to the ambitious countrypolitan landscapes of 2013’s much-loved Muchacho. Houck’s tone and songs could disappear into his well-built, tasteful atmospheres. At least for me, Phosphorescent often fell safely in the realm of perhaps-incorrect stereotypes—enjoyable, but ultimately failing to stick.
But on C’est La Vie—the first Phosphorescent studio album in a half-decade and since Houck left Brooklyn for fatherhood in Nashville—his voice cuts through inventive settings with a confidence, clarity, and sensibility that can vividly and unexpectedly recall 1980s Paul Simon, minus the global beats and entitled boomerness. “New Birth in New England” bounces irresistibly, not too far removed from Vampire Weekend, either, but counterbalanced by Ricky Ray Jackson’s luminous pedal steel. Though nothing else on the album quite sounds like that first single (or hits the same giddiness), the Simon similarity runs deep. Houck’s narrator is often sly, wry, and conversational. “‘C’est la vie,’ she says/But I don’t know what she means,” he sings on the chorus of “C’est La Vie No.2.” Like Simon, Houck casts himself as a slightly befuddled subject, his internal monologues tumbling into melody.
As far removed from Phosphorescent’s bedroom folk days as Simon’s 1986 Graceland was from his singer-songwriter debut, C’est La Vie is a mirror of Houck’s own maturation, its similarities to Simon perhaps as structural as they are sonic. In places, it sounds like a late-30s check-in for Houck and his listeners, as “My Beautiful Boy” attests. The type of open-hearted daddom that might make a younger songwriter sneer (or blush), it floats on a cloud of gorgeous ambient percussion that keeps the arrangement from drifting into nebulous string-synths. Though Houck has relocated to Nashville, C’est La Vie’s most compelling music is perhaps its least C&W, finding new uses for all that pedal steel. Some of the album’s best moments are more Lambchop than George Jones, especially the vocoder-touched R&B float of “Christmas Down Under.” It would have been unthinkable on Houck’s earliest work.
Sometimes _C’est La Vie _is a bit too on-the-nose, much like 2010’s middle-of-the-road Here’s to Taking It Easy. “These Rocks” recalls Daniel Lanois’ work with Bob Dylan. Serving as a piece of late-album heaviness, with Houck condensing life’s battles into a refrain, the music seems to strain to match the gravity of the central lyric—“These rocks, they are heavy/Been carrying them around all my days.” But it does underscore the bittersweet, top-loaded sense of fun possessed by the rest of C’est La Vie, exemplified by the moment that Jackson’s pedal steel locks into the kosmische pulse of “Around the Horn.” The music suddenly soars beyond the land of songs. It’s the kind of turn on the kind of album that might even make a previously unimpressed listener reevaluate how Houck arrived here. Maybe it was Pro Tools. Or maybe it was daddom.
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