Recently, Matthew Houck, aka Phosphorescent, played at New York’s Bowery Ballroom in celebration of the release of his latest album Muchacho, which is by no means his first, but definitely his biggest. I’m more of a Pride guy myself.
Pride came out in 2007. It’s a small album. Houck owes a lot to Will Oldham, his voice cracks under the weight of age, and even when he’s writing relatable songs, the ones on Pride mostly seemed a little bit off, in that way that makes them just weird enough to feel true.
The show at Bowery Ballroom was good. He played a lot of new stuff–some old stuff, including Pride’s “Wolves,” which manages to evoke a stark clear night sky, wolves tumbling through snow, and lung-punishing crispness. When he played it, the entire audience shut up.
I’ve always been proud of the fact that I’m not one of those music listeners that tries to keep artists close, like I own them. I generally get so excited that I tell everyone about everything that I love. It’s probably annoying. So I say this cautiously: watching Houck on that stage, I felt like his fanbase had become something different than whatever it is I am. I still like his music, but I didn’t feel like I was relating to everyone else that liked his music. That’s okay! It’s not a bad thing — but it was noticeable.
Last week I wrote about Ray Raposa’s Castanets project and how, to make City of Refuge, Raposa disappeared into the desert for awhile. It wasn’t that he was running away, it’s just that he needed to extract himself. Sometimes shoving yourself out of your own comfort zone is good. Sometimes it makes things shitty. Sometimes it makes things really shitty and that ends up being okay because life shakeups are worth something all on their own. Raposa made a great, but underrated album, so he probably sits somewhere in the middle of all that.
I don’t think what I wrote was wrong, but thinking back to that Phosphorescent show is making me realize it’s not exactly right either.
While Pride was an album so intimate it felt anachronistic, Muchacho feels like the lovelorn stadium record — the one that could get Houck that much closer to being a rockstar (or some 2013 approximation of whatever that is now). Pride was an album I retreated into — I’d put it on when I came home from work to block out street noise and the reality of adult life. Muchacho feels like a form of acceptance. The sound of Houck retreating into the world.
Too often, being lonely or making lonely art or occupying a lonely state is classified as running away, but if you make a career out of shaping that loneliness into something people can relate to, are you running away by allowing yourself to be swallowed by your fanbase? Is running into something the same as running away from it?
Where Muchacho feels tightly wound, Pride sprawls. Most songs stretch past the six minute mark, creaking their way to their quiet, accepting conclusions, with a few exceptions. “At Death, A Proclamation” is built on a sturdy drumroll and ominous stabs of piano. It manages to be foreboding and pretty, triumphant and defeated. It’s basically a two minute push-and-pull with no resolution. It’s emotional purgatory, but it’s gorgeous anyway. Muchacho and Pride have that same push-and-pull, which is probably why I keep talking about them like they’re one thing, even though they’re not.
Houck’s career arc illustrates a specific point: when it comes to what you spend your days on, or your general life decisions, just do the thing you want to do. It’s obvious, but gets muddied in the expectations of others so quickly that it’s easy to lose sight of what you were trying to do in the first place. Maybe it’s how Houck got from Pride to Muchacho. Due to the nature of memory and nostalgia, art we’re more familiar with is always going to hit closer to home, but newer material can still reach wide enough to swallow us whole.