One of the achievements of Phosphorescent’s ode to Willie was how comfortable Matthew Houck was at interpreting (or reinterpreting) Willie Nelson. It wasn’t just that he carefully selected songs that had mostly filtered out of the cadre of Willie popularity. But he was also succeeding the wintry folk soul-lashing of Pride just two years prior. Viewing them in sequence then, Tuesday’s release of Here’s to Taking It Easy might first feel like the comfort zone discovered in To Willie has indeed extended itself. One could think Houck has found his niche in the re-reckoning of outlaw country.
Quick parallels do present themselves. After two Houck-only composed long-players in 2005 and 2007, Phosphorescent is indeed a full band these latest two runs. And in jangling, horn-blowing outlaw fashion, album opener “It’s Hard to Be Humble (When You’re from Alabama)” quickly flashes a shameless middle finger to the urbane thumb-nosing of outsiders. Listen to the pedal steel stretch itself across Taking It Easy, and on first listen, you may certainly make the impression that To Willie had a greater stylistic impact than just one record. But To Willie wasn’t a left turn that simply kept going straight on Taking It Easy, shapeshifting an erstwhile psych-folkie to country balladeer; rather,Taking It Easy is a progression of Houck’s output thus far. Going back to 2005, Aw Come Aw Wry isn’t exactly bereft of country inclinations, pedal steel included. And the compositionally bleaker Pride carries the vulnerable heartache of lovelorn dust ditties. But it’s also important to remember that the inclusion of pedal steel doesn’t necessarily make something “country,” and neither does melancholy confine itself to Dixie. Maybe Houck hasn’t found comfort in country, but increasingly, comfort with his own song-making.
“We’ll Be Here Soon” is the first example of the latter, where every bit of past Phosphorescent is infused into a weary letter home. There’s some initial resignation as he announces his return, but also a strange confidence in the face of uncertainty, in that he doesn’t know necessarily what’s awaiting, only that they (not just he) are going to confront it. A similar amalgam occurs in “Tell Me Baby (Have You Had Enough),” which could conceptually and seamlessly fit in any of the three previous Phoss records. The mantric repetition of “Hej, Me I’m Light” has roots even further back, a mysterious chant somewhat reminiscent of the band’s debut, A Hundred Times or More (or Pride, for that matter). More explicit country textures–“The Mermaid Parade” and “I Don’t Care if There’s Cursing”–do stand out, but even those are offset by Houck’s slightly enervated vocals. In volume, his voice goes toe to toe with the music, but it does seem one punch shy of quavering in contrast to the sparkling instrumentation. Thickly piling musical layers atop each other, the album closer “Los Angeles” does everything in one song that the album accomplishes in the first eight, blending each ounce of Here’s to Taking It Easy into a wandering archive of Phosphorescent’s sound.
Here’s to Taking It Easy has all the makings of a country record–balancing pride and shame, confidence and unease, convivial pronouncements and abdicated joy, and of course, the pedal steel. But turning back to it time and again, a familiar face reveals itself. Matthew Houck has transplanted himself from one music town to the next–to Athens, to Brooklyn–and maybe not so coincidentally, his tone has shifted with him, aligning itself with the contemporaries of his environs. This time around, we’re reacquainted with past sounds, but we might overlook them at first because they’re so effortlessly, so comfortably intertwined. This isn’t country. This is Phosphorescent. words/ j crosby
MP3: Phosphorescent :: The Mermaid Parade