TRACK LIFE: Phosphorescent – “Song For Zula”
Welcome to Track Life, a daily column in which Jacob Knight shares what he thinks to be the best in music, both new and old.
There seem to be two sides to Matthew Houck, the bearded, mountain man looking adventurer behind Phosphorescent. There’s the hazy commune member, strolling through the hills and fields and watching as the animals play (sometimes ominously) with one another. 2007’s Pride was a record of wounded incantations, sad songs to a countryside he saw dying around him. It’s almost like the sonic equivalent of a Terrence Malick movie; a man exploring his relationship with the natural world around him before praying to God about it.
The second side sounded like a man ready to drink himself to oblivion, but any trace of pastoral sadness was lost in his treatise to debauchery, 2010’s hard rockin’ Here’s to Taking It Easy. But even when boozed, his voice is his greatest weapon, an affecting, cracking wail that belongs in a boy’s choir instead of a folk rock band. While Justin Vernon is running around getting all the praise, Houck released these two, plus another record of Willie Nelson covers, To Willie, that have redefined just exactly what folk, country and soft rock can sound like.
On “Song For Zula,” off the just released Muchacho (out via Dead Oceans), we hear a different side of Houck; one that has seemingly stumbled down to the shores of a vast ocean, and is letting its waves lap up over his toes. This is no long a man in a Georgia cabin; the rack is bigger, denser, and more layered, production wise, than anything he’s ever released before. Swirling, repeating violin lines and rippling synths turn around and around one another, as waves of pedal-steel guitar are like the current, moving back into a deep, endless body of water.
“You will not see me fall/or see me struggle to stand/To be acknowledged by some touch from his gnarled hands.” Houck’s lyrics sound like a defiant confession to a God who lay somewhere beyond that deep, blue sea. Suddenly, we’re on the shore with Houck, listening to his tale as if it were the last he’s to ever tell. It’s a beautiful, dreamy moment where Phosphorescent’s music is no longer morose nor drunken, but clear-headed in its conviction. And we’re free to join him as he faces the rest of existence on his own terms.