Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck has undergone a gradual yet consistent artistic metamorphosis since releasing his 2003 debut, A Hundred Times or More. His journey has taken him through Neutral Milk Hotel-style indie folk (2005′s Aw Come Aw Wry), eerily spare and ethereal Americana (2007′s Pride), and even a Willie Nelson covers album (2009′s To Willie). Yet, for a musician who has displayed such a penchant for playful transformation and an implicit aim never to release the same record twice, however, Houck has maintained a quiet intensity that makes Phosphorescent’s output wholly unique. His cracked and rustic pipes are weathered and imperfect, a soft and expressive element that lends a beating heart to his compositions, whether threadbare or layered with drums and lap steel.
Here’s To Taking It Easy, Phosphorescent’s fifth album, leans squarely toward bigger arrangements and grander statements. It’s less folk, and more rock, though that Willie Nelson influence has most certainly crept in and inflected these nine tracks with a country twang. While a bright and brassy country rock spirit looms large, however, Houck himself remains a vulnerable and wounded protagonist in its soft center. This juxtaposition is most glaring in leadoff track “It’s Hard to Be Humble (When You’re From Alabama)”, a wondrous standout that kicks open the saloon doors with a flashy burst of piano, electric guitar and horns that sounds, to me, like a grand party, Nashville style. Houck, himself, however, sounds weary and jaded, singing “baby, all these cities, ain’t they all starting to look all the same.” It’s a simple riff on the familiar trope of the road anthem, though his attitude grows a bit cockier by the second verse, singing, “if I’m talking to you mister, then you best be writing down what I say.”
When the tempo drops a bit, however, Houck tends to delve deeper into heartbreak and loneliness, two elements that have always made successful partners with country music. On the beautiful “Tell Me Baby (Have You Had Enough)”, he rhymes the titular refrain with laments such as “I know sometimes I can play too rough,” though the weeping lap steel and growing resignation make the unspoken answer to his question painfully clear. Meanwhile, the lush and boisterous ballad “The Mermaid Parade” is a lovely narration of a relationship falling apart: “ came back to this city/ And you stayed home in L.A./ And our two years of marriage/ In two short weeks/ Somehow just slipped away.” Yet, instead of finding therapy in booze or pills, Houck simply takes pleasure in watching the female specimens in the traditional New York parade to which the song alludes.
Whether counting faceless cities or distracting himself from a wounded heart, Houck has, most importantly, delivered his strongest songs to date on Taking It Easy. “Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly)” unfolds slowly but steadily, reaching a stunning, hand-clapping climax. The haunting and ethereal “Hej, Me I’m Light” creates a sublime atmosphere, albeit with no lyrics other than a repeated recitation of the title. And the epic “Los Angeles,” which closes the album, is a ragged and twangy standout with all of the earnest grit of Neil Young’s strongest tunes from the ’70s.
For an album so vulnerable and so tender, Here’s to Taking It Easy is an awful lot of fun. Its nine songs breeze by quickly, but the richness and detail within each of them renders regular replays as inevitable. And that’s the beauty of this album; whether you’re drowning your sorrows or up for a night on the town, it makes a perfect companion.