Concert preview: Phosphorescent’s latest dust-caked drifter-country tunes use loss and redemption as themes

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From the July 11, 2013 edition

Matthew Houck’s getting better at touring. Or rather, the driving — the long stretches of time doing nothing else. That’s what really got to him.

After the release of 2010’s Here’s To Taking It Easy, Houck (who performs as dust-caked drifter-country act Phosphorescent) nearly had a breakdown, ironically, from the extensive touring in support of that album. While on the road, he’d lost his girlfriend and was evicted from the Brooklyn apartment where he recorded and had lived for half a decade. He wasn’t sure he wanted to make another Phosphorescent album either.

“[Touring is] just a vacuum,” Houck said during a recent interview. “If you end up spending a lot of time in that netherland — you’re neither here nor there — it can really do something different to your mind. I don’t think that’s super healthy.”

In the aftermath of those struggles, Houck moved to a small town in Mexico where he took solitary walks, swam and just generally checked out of life. He’d hear Mexicans use the word “muchacho” and it became a sort of get-your-life-together mantra, like Pull yourself together, muchacho.

This year’s follow-up album (titled, what else, Muchacho) is, then, focused on redemption, on accepting the paradox of the things you love doing you harm, whether it’s a relationship or your art. The cover for the album depicts Houck in a seedy hotel room with two topless women. In the corner, Houck is leaned back, a cowboy hat tipped over his eyes, a smile stretched across his face, as if to say, “This might not end well, but I’m having fun.”

In “Terror In The Canyons (The Wounded Master),” Houck sings of being transformed from the wounded master to a slave, from a holy lion to the cage. The lines describe, in part, the way he came to feel about his music during the Here’s To Taking It Easy tours.

“I think you have the right to manhandle [your art] however you need to to get at its full sort of truth,” Houck said. But it’s trick in that it all of the sudden feels like something gets lost from it by doing that. I think what I was feeling was something sort of akin to someone losing their faith. It’s a really empty, devastating feeling.”

These days, Houck said, he’s better at taking better care of himself. He’s not ready to start writing new material (“It requires a certain kind of solitude and a certain vulnerability to dig around in these areas”). But he’s content with where he is, which on the day of this interview was in his new studio, tinkering with equipment and setting up gear for whatever music project comes next (he’s recently expressed an interest in producing someone else’s album).

For now, that’s enough.

“I think that’s the key thing, is coming to peace with [the difficulties of a music career] rather than struggle with it; just sort of accepting that things are what they are,” Houck said. “And I think it’s good to have agency and to affect changes if you need to. I also think there’s a real beauty in allowance, in simply taking things exactly as they are and finding beauty in that.”

If Muchacho is anything, it’s a testament that Houck has that skill nearly mastered.