Cribbing a line from the Man in Black, Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck sings of those that “say love is a burning thing.” Whatever that feeling was that Cash knew so well, Houck has never felt it. For him, love’s been “fading,” “fickle,” “a cage [that] calls.” These are old bruises. Houck’s laid them bare in past recordings, playing the gutted bluesman, shambling ghost and beer-soaked crooner. Never has the music played such a majestic counter-point, though. Houck may sing how sick of love he is on “Song for Zula,” but the music betrays him.
Muchacho blooms in these incongruities. Two takes on the sun’s ascent bookend the record with yogic serenity (“Sun Arise! (An Invocation, An Introduction)” and “Sun’s Arising (A Koan, An Exit),” respectively). They’re a primer to the fuzzy emotional place where Houck finds himself. His trademark warble starts out shrouded in soft electronic beats and yearning violins (“Song for Zula”). Then he plays to old strengths, letting lonesome lap steel cozy up to the piano and make room for a swells of horns (“Terror in the Canyons (The Wounded Master)”). There’s a hint of that old spiritual hunger, “so holy and wasted like a prayer in the wind” (“A New Anhedonia”). But even when our ragged guide is facing up to mistakes, the music meets him with tenderness (“Down to Go”).
“I been fucked up and I been a fool,” he sings on standout track, “Muchacho’s Tune.” “Like the shepherd to the lamb, like the wave unto the sand, I fixed myself up and come and be with you.” It’s a promise made knowing full well the heart is fickle, but music, like hope, never fades.