In 2013, singer/songwriter Mathew Houck released Muchacho, his sixth album as Phosphorescent, which would become a career-defining moment for his music. The album immediately outsold everything he'd made in the decade-plus leading up to it, and reached more listeners as well. Though there were months of touring, major life changes occurred, and Phosphorescent dimmed to a flicker as Houck and his new partner left long-time home in Brooklyn to start a family in Nashville. Five years, two children, and an assortment of life changes later, he returned with his seventh album, C'est La Vie. His first new music since Muchacho finds Houck aiming for the same huge sonics that breathed pop appeal into his best work, but trades in a far different emotional currency than the tortured and depraved mindsets of before. No longer writing from places of anguished heartbreak, Houck sounds more reflective and metered here, sometimes to an almost abstract degree. "Christmas Down Under" melds textural electronics and vo-codered harmonies with rootsy pedal steel guitar and lyrics woozily moving from lines about swimming on a hot December day in Australia to increasingly fantastical ruminations on Jesus' daughter, doves, dragons, and tiki bars. Much of the album oscillates between detached and direct sentiments, but both carry a sense of moving away from destructive habits. "C'est La Vie No. 2" lists fiery, youthful sentiments Houck no longer relates to, claiming in one line "I stood out in the rain like the rain might come and wash my eyes clean" just to glibly recant it in the next, saying "I don't stand out in the rain to have my eyes washed clean no more." Similarly, he reflects on years of hard living and constant touring on the country waltz "These Rocks," considering giving up booze and the burdens of a headstrong and hurried early life. Themes of family and parenthood run throughout the album, from adoring lines about watching a sleeping son in "My Beautiful Boy" to spotting a wild deer on the lawn in the first days of living in a new environment on "There from Here." "New Birth in New England" is perhaps the album's most accessible song, riding a groove that echoes '70s FM radio heroes like Jimmy Buffett and Warren Zevon. Even this song, with its retrofitted backup singers and boogie-pop hooks, moves between verses about drinking at a piano bar and crying when seeing his newborn child for the first time. While more drifting and daydreamy than the concentrated pain of Muchacho, C'est La Vie is more than another story of a former wild child settling into family life. Instead of finding inspiration in catharsis, Houck looks to the slowly unfolding world he's built around himself. At first this can feel less immediate than previous work, but much like Phosphorescent's winding journey, C'est La Vie burns slowly and leaves impressions both spiritual and sonic that merit repeat listens.
C'est La Vie Review
by Fred Thomas