TBTS Reviews: Phosphorescent, Muchacho
My favorite album of 2013 so far, Phosphorescent’s Muchacho makes me think about the words of the great poet, Steve Perry of Journey, who used to sing about the wheel in the sky that always keeps on turning. The gears of time grind inexorably on, movement is just as likely to be circular as it is to be forward, and we don’t really know where we’ll be tomorrow. That’s deep stuff, though possibly unintentionally so, given that the source is the guy who also dropped, “Any way you want it, that’s the way you need it.”
That said, I’ll never mention Steve Perry again, and I’ll talk more about Muchacho in a second. But first let me tell you about my uncle Bob. This is going somewhere, I promise.
Last Christmas my uncle, aged 75 or so, acknowledged to my brother and me that he is slowing down physically and mentally. The former has been obvious for a while — he’s got bad hearing, a bum leg, a tricky back — but I was surprised to hear the latter because that night he seemed as sharp and engaged as ever. A thoughtful and eloquent man, a pastor who’s commanded a pulpit and led a congregation for decades, my uncle was clearly troubled by the prospect of his mental capacity diminishing. The whole arc of his life was also on his mind, and at one point he said something like, “Boys, I look back sometimes and I just don’t know where the time all went.” He displayed grace and good humor, no doubt buoyed by his solid faith, but I still saw a man in whom an awareness of old age, a Prufrockian concern that he has “seen the moment of [his] greatness flicker,” was coagulating thick and heavy in his marrow.
Being aware that our time passes quickly is, of course, the essential human condition and the wellspring of countless cliches. Time flies, life’s too short, live every day like it’s your last, and all that. They’re easy ideas to voice, and easy ones to think you’re living by, especially if you’ve already seen your share or more of loss. But since Christmas I’ve come to think the reality is as murky as those aphorisms are clear. From my uncle I heard pained awareness of lost time, this from a man I respect and to whom I bear at least some facial resemblance (unfortunately for us both). It was on the 30-somethingth Christmas gathering I’ve spent in the house of my childhood, where every Christmas already reminds me that my own allotted time seems to tick by ever more rapidly with each passing year.
These factors combined gave me a new and frankly rather unwelcome viewpoint on the whole business of living and dying, living while dying, and the incessant feeling of moving more rapidly than we’d like toward the end. I had thought that if anybody could keep that niggling itch within himself pretty well mollified, it would be an old preacher who had managed to live a pretty good life and had carried into old age some trusted answers to the biggest questions about why and what next. But my uncle’s unsolicited testimony revealed that notion false. As 2012 gave way to 2013, I began to think we’re probably fated instead to look back throughout our lives and wonder where the time all went, no matter how much of it we’ve had, no matter how well we’ve used it, and no matter what we’ve seen and felt and thought and believed along the way.
And then I heard Muchacho by Phosphorescent (aka Matthew Houck) in early March, read some of the pre-release press and interviews with Houck, and was moved to think again about my uncle’s bewilderment and what it implies for my future time, soon to be past. This album is all about those life intervals when you’re filled with a doubt that feeds on your guts like a tapeworm, and finding the wherewithal to say to yourself, and here I’m quoting Houck directly, “You better handle it. This is how it is, muchacho.” Knowing not only that your time is limited, but also that you still might feel a tiny bit cheated at the end, even if you live a long time and make decent use of the time you have? This is how it is, muchacho. You better handle it. Knowing not only that you’ve recently fucked up and hurt people and you’ve got to get right with the things you’ve done, but also that there’s absolutely no guarantee that you won’t do it all again, and worse next time, once you’re finally able to come back from this go-round? This is how it is, muchacho. You better handle it. Knowing that you’ll probably keep learning and then ignoring the same bits of “wisdom” your whole life, because the capacity for vision and the tendency toward blindness are both encoded in your DNA in equal parts? This is how it is, muchacho. You better handle it.
And that’s where Muchacho starts to take on the qualities of a holy text for me, because Houck doesn’t allow this inevitable, irreconcilable ambiguity to become a reason to wallow in persistent despair. Based on his recent interviews and on the album’s lyrics themselves, I think Houck was forced through a couple years’ worth of circumstances to confront things within himself, bad tendencies and bad choices, and this album is the sound of both the grappling and the reemergence. The redemption, or at least the possibility thereof, feels authentic because it’s not based on glib denial of all the hard stuff, including the awareness of the limitations of both time and the self, that brought him low in the first place. Houck’s movements toward healing and progress are small, halting, but seemingly more resolute and trustworthy because he is after the ongoing achievement of acceptance, not the final achievement of wisdom, which is probably illusory anyway. Through his work on Muchacho, I imagine Houck telling himself, “You have more time, maybe a lot, maybe a little, but either way not enough when you get to the end of it. You’ll probably both fail and succeed along the way, perhaps spectacularly. Though it’s entirely possible that not that many people will notice whatever you do, you still have the capacity to lift others up instead of bringing them down. That means you have both freedom and responsibilities. The sun will rise, and tomorrow will come, unless it doesn’t. Either way, you better handle it. This is how it is, muchacho.”
Postscript: I haven’t talked about the beautiful music and songcraft on Muchacho. You can trust me when I say it’s the most lovely, soaring, inspiring thing I’ve heard in a good while. Or you can read some excellent reviews and articles that focus more on the music. Or you can just listen for yourself.