Song for Zula by Phosphorescent
Country Music Alternate Universe: Week 4
Ideally in multi-part series such as this, the final installment should be used either as a grand summation of the installments before, the next logical step in a progression, or the hammer that drives the point home.
This may not be any of those. But Song for Zula, and the full album Muchacho, by Phosphorescent is the greatest thing I’ve heard this year, by a mile, and since at its core, it’s country music, I guess it works. And believe me, it is country music. Throughout it are the deep and layered elements of everything I love about country music cast in a modern and stunningly beautiful series of songs that I can’t listen to enough.
Astute readers will recognize Phosphorescent (N.B. The nom de plume of singer-songwriter Matthew Houck) from WD’s adoration of his 2010 album Here’s to Taking it Easy and specifically with the heartbreaking and gorgeous Mermaid Parade. He’s back, and if these songs are about the same girl (N.B. Amanda “but god damn it Amanda, god damn it all”), well then he’s not even close to being done with her.
The word is that Houck transplanted to Mexico from his transplanted Brooklyn (N.B. Alabama native) to escape and mull and to write this stunner about love lost, choices, and consequences. This story has a common rock-mythology refrain, tortured artist isolates himself to allow his art to development in solitude without “interference” from the outside. It’s enough to make me roll my eyes and sigh, if the product of Houck’s sabbatical wasn’t so completely stellar in every conceivable way.
I feel like I’ve typed (and thought) a variant of “this is the best thing I’ve heard in a while” 3-4 times, but Muchacho is everything I want to listen to right now. Song for Zula is six minutes long, and those six minutes feel like a gift such that at the end I bet you’ll wish for six more. It fills you up, even with the hard-hearted and weary version of love that it recounts…but man. Wow.
Country Music angle: I haven’t forgotten it. Houck’s voice, scrambled and injured and hiccuppy, is the first indicator that you’re listening to something derivative of country music. Then the slide guitar coupled with the personal disgust/heartbreak and you realize that Muchacho (N.B. Hell, everything that Houck does) has its feet firmly planted in the music of Willie Nelson, Cash, KK.
Not convinced? Listen to the opening of Terror in the Canyons and tell me that’s not country music.
But Houck’s story speaks volumes about country music today. Transplanted to Brooklyn (the epicenter of hipster-ness) to make cutting edge country music, and I feel like it’s shame he had to escape there to make this. But music like this–country music like this–doesn’t reside in the “country” any more. Maybe that’s a shame. But maybe that’s why I was motivated to spend a month exploring country music today. It tried to leave me.
You and I will never hear Houck on the radio. Ever. But you know, maybe in 30 years, the G-Unit will stumble upon a compilation CD (or whatever) titled “Post-Modern Country” or “Millennial (sigh) Country” or “Diaspora Country” (N.B. oooh, I like that one) that includes Phosphorescent (and maybe Daughn Gibson) and other artists that have made music fully informed by the greats of country music, free of the NP hit machine saccharine inspidity, and built into a dense and lush and hypnotic soundtrack for the time. Because that’s what Phosphorescent feels like, and if we can mail it to 2043 with a note that says “see, we were cool,” then that’d be nice.