The Lowdown: In the title song of Phosphorescent’s C’est La Vie, Matthew Houck sings “C’est la vie, they say/ But I don’t know what they mean.” After listening to this laid-back album, this listener doesn’t know what Houck means either. Since his remarkable 2013 album, Muchacho, Houck’s life has changed considerably: He fell in love with fellow musician, Jo Schornikow, had two kids, and moved from Brooklyn to Nashville. His sound, however, hasn’t changed much: You’ll recognize his stuttering atmospherics, keening tenor, swelling and unhurried tempos, and the plaintive pedal steel. If anything, Houck sounds like his spiritual uncertainty has mellowed into a pretty sweet family life. While the rest of America, including his hero Willie Nelson, is pissed the hell off — either preaching from our individual pulpits or roiling in despair — Houck is trying to take a long view from his own front porch.
The Good: Phosphorescent’s downbeat yet good-natured alt-country can soothe you and spark a grin. At his poppiest, Houck sounds like Springsteen charming a working-class, good-time crowd; at his jammiest, he sounds like the War on Drugs in a rocking chair. (In a good way!) Nearing 40, Houck doesn’t shy away from writing about his comfort and joy. On bouncy, sandy single “New Birth in New England”, he sings of his partner and children as lovely twists of fate and sounds like Kenny Chesney covering Bob Dylan’s Desire (in a good way!). The final refrain “Don’t I know ya” builds over an organ shuffle, echoing the sweet gospel of Hiss Golden Messenger.
Houck is best when he gets strange. Six-minute “Christmas Down Under” is the closest C’est La Vie gets to the contemplative epic of “Song for Zula”, Muchacho’s standout track. On “Christmas”, Houck is washed up on a surreal shoreline, musing that “Jesus had a daughter” while a submerged beat pulses and pedal steel shimmers overhead. But unlike on “Zula”, he’s not alone in his meditations — he’s joined by multiple Auto-Tuned voices, singing the same lines. When you consider his partner is Australian, a holiday in an upside-down world feels quite ordinary.
The Bad: The album is bookended by wordless wilderness: “Black Moon/Silver Waves” begins with a whoop and an eerie chorus howling in the night over arrhythmic strums, and the inverted outro “Silver Moon/Black Waves” rumbles out into darkness. Between these two bursts of chaos, however, are 39 minutes of middle-of-the-road civility. On “These Rocks”, Houck repeats, “I was drunk for a decade,” but won’t really change his life, shrugging, “Thinking about putting that stuff away.” The blues of the lyrics could’ve been compelling in their paralysis, but the tone is light, like a slightly bummed Dr. Dog. Throughout, the singer is supported by a breathy choir, floating him far above any consequences. “I wrote all night/ Like the fire of my words could burn a hole up to heaven,” Houck sings on “C’est La Vie No. 2”. “I don’t write all night burning holes up to heaven no more” — a fitting thesis for leaving behind youthful delusions. But did he leave behind his passion, his fight, his seeking, too?
Verdict: C’est La Vie has moments of real beauty and depth while reflecting on fatherhood and settling down. But Houck should keep pushing into the strange, uncomfortable places where his best music gets made; now’s not the time to shrug it off.
Essential Tracks: “Christmas Down Under” and “New Birth in New England”