Under the name Phosphorescent, indie country songwriter Matthew Houck has walked a drunken path, wobbling closer to the indie side on some records and slumping more toward the country side on others, with the best example being his 2009 collection of Willie Nelson covers, To Willie. With sixth album Muchacho, Houck returns to some of the experimental textures that marked his early breakthrough album Pride, weaving ambient tones and feral whoops throughout his sometimes shiny, sometimes grizzled Americana. The album is bookended by tracks "Sun, Arise!" and "Sun's Arising," meditative drones with multi-tracked layers of Houck harmonizing with himself, ushering the listener into and out of the record over arpeggiated synth tones and far-off-sounding instrumentation. There's more implementation of electronic instruments here than on most Phosphorescent's material that came before, with 808 drum patterns and dubby echoes in the forefront on some songs; but at no point does the songwriting surrender the starring role. Whether the tunes are piling on pedal steel and mariachi trumpet in the vein of Dylan's soundtrack work for Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, as on the honky tonk hoedown of "A Charm/A Blade," or finding some dreamy Will Oldham/early Animal Collective hybrid, as with the ghostly "The Quotidian Beasts," Houck's use of simplistic but haunting chord progressions and world-weary melodies always overrides any other sonic surroundings. The songs here are so strong, in fact, they're sometimes cluttered by excessive instrumentation or detail-burying production. While the atmospheric string loops and delay-doused bass plucks of "Song for Zula" help make it one of the best tracks on the album, one can't help but wonder what the effect would be if it were stripped down to Houck's damaged vocals and a simple guitar or piano figure. Throughout the album, lyrics peek through the waves like "I will not open myself up this way again" and "Hey can this kill me? I don't know, but I've sure been finding out," hinting at heartache and the possibility that Muchacho is some drunken-hearted breakup record, but it's never made abundantly clear. What is clear, even through the sometimes heavier-than-necessary arrangements, is that Muchacho has some of Houck's best songwriting since his early days, seemingly tapped into the grainy pain, hard-living tendencies, and wandering muse of his subconscious, with the most listenable results Phosphorescent has produced in years.
AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas