You might remember Phosphorescent from my recent What’s Playing. I remember how awkward their name is to spell. You might remember that the song Right On/Ride On was a pretty great folk rock(or fock) song that was like Home but much much better and much less cheesy. I remember that too. Unfortunately I remember very little else from a largely pedestrian but occasionally inspired album that tries to be many things but succeeds at few of them.
Phosphorescent is the moniker of singer-songwriter Matthew Houck, who formerly operated under the pseudonym Fillup Shack and appears to be afraid of his own name. Other than his rejection of his own name, what makes Phosphorescent stand out from his focking contemporaries is the electro, almost chillwave, element he brings to his otherwise fairly standard country sound. On songs like album opener Sun Arise, a fairly gentle, melodic, strangely sci-fi sounding swoon, it works. In fact the first two songs are pretty misleading – Sun Arise is an electro lullaby and Song For Zula is a slightly longer electro lullaby with more of the ‘this is so heartfelt and painful’ vocal affectation that seems to be sweeping indie singer-songwriters. Both are closer to ambient than country and lay down a sonic template that is quickly disregarded in favour of something infinitely more ordinary. From here the ambient stuff recedes and elsewhere on the album it’s confined to adding texture at most; but more often it seems to drag the album down into its lethargic, almost catatonic drones. Phosphorescent is laid back as hell and that vibe is imprinted so strongly on the album it almost renders it comatose.
It seems to settle for being background noise fairly quickly, and from there settles into a calm, dulling, though still pleasant, lull. If only the rest of the album had the energy and verve of Right On/Ride On, a song that’s so much more engaging you’d scarcely believe it’s from the same album as what follows. It quietly pulses with an electro beat drenched in layers of psychedelic guitar licks whilst Houck whoops and yelps and oozes laid-back fun.
In the end what follows is an album that you don’t so much listen to as let happen to yourself, only realising an hour later that wait you just listened to that whole album but remember almost nothing of it. The songs, and the album, just kinda pass you by; especially when Houck tries to be heartfelt and slows the tempo even more. Neither his voice nor his lyrics are good enough or interesting enough to support the lulls. Even when he returns to the first song on album closer Sun’s Arising it just sounds like a less interesting, lethargic version of the once promising opening. It’s meant to be sad in a way, I think. It was, but I was just sad about how the album never went anywhere, which I doubt was what he was going for. It adds closure and cohesion to the album but it still ends up just feeling unfulfilled.
Songs like A New Anhedonia are symptomatic of the album – all texture and atmosphere but no hooks and no heft; quietly inoffensive coma country at its best. By the album’s end Houck’s voice has run out of tricks and all the whoops and hollers that earlier injected life and fun now seem contrived. His voice is certainly good and certainly distinctive, and on songs like album centrepiece and occasional interest-sustainer The Quotidian Beasts it momentarily shines when he shows off his pipeworks range, but it just doesn’t grab the way he seems to think it does and doesn’t touch the way he seems to think it does.
Ultimately Muchacho is a pretty and calming work, though a largely forgettable and almost entirely toothless one, that pulls at many strands but seems to get bored of the effort halfway through. And please stop trying to sound so goddamn sad and sincere and tragic all the time Houck, it really isn’t working.