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Phosphorescent

“I got tired of sadness/ I got tired of all the madness/ I got tired of bein’ a badass all the time,” Matthew Houck sings on “Revelator,” the opener and title track of his latest Phosphorescent album. Houck was actively looking for something new, an epiphany, when the old ways stopped working. And just as the album Revelator only revealed itself to its author along the way, so too did real life revelations take their time answering the plaintive mission statement with which Houck reintroduces Phosphorescent.

The last time we heard from Phosphorescent, it was after a five year gap between Houck’s 2013 breakthrough Muchacho and 2018’s C’est La Vie. His life had changed drastically: He had left New York City for Nashville, had children, survived a nearly fatal bout of meningitis, and re-built his recording studio from the ground up. Now, another half decade has passed, a period that while quieter, has proven no less complex, with Houck traversing murkier spaces and the blurry mists of time

“This record is a lot more open-ended and ephemeral,” Houck explains, noting the more plainly autobiographical documentation of C’est La Vie has been upended by something less knowable, more unsettled. The underlying melancholy of Phosphorescent’s music remains, reframed by the weird headspace of long-term fallouts from the last few years. Revelator might promise a fresh outlook, another horizon, but first the album wrestles with an ongoing, ambient sense of dread.

After a bit of pandemic dormancy, Houck first revived Phosphorescent for The Full Moon Project in 2022. Each month, on the full moon, he released a cover of a song from an eclectic selection of artists like Randy Newman, Nick Lowe, Nina Simone and Tom T. Hall, getting back in the groove of making music in his Nashville studio. The Full Moon recordings did the trick, shaking the cobwebs loose: After the downtime of the pandemic, Revelator suddenly happened fast. Houck underwent a few writing retreats, renting himself a room across town then rejoining his family for the weekend. Though it only took six months to write and record, it wasn’t an easy birth: Revelator made Houck confront his usual tendencies toward self-doubt, amplified by his own questions about what sort of album he was making.

In the end, Revelator points the way to a poignant outcome. It’s an album of elegant gravity and “the grand sadness in life” — perennial Phosphorescent subject matter, by Houck’s estimation. In some ways, Revelator extends seamlessly from the story begun by Muchacho and continued by C’est La Vie. It finds Houck further mastering his unique blend of ragged, experiment-y classicism intertwined with ethereal, lachrymose atmospherics. Across Revelator, Houck sings from a woozy, worn headspace, but leads us to a place where dreams and reality mingle. Anxieties about the future — both personal and global — air alongside stray memories. Surprisingly profound (yet still raunchy) messages scrawled on a men’s room wall sit next to moments of reclaimed wonder, with Houck seeing the world anew through his children’s eyes

While Revelator remained a mystery even to Houck for some time, you can see a clear arc unfold across its nine songs. “Revelator” works as an overture, setting the stakes for Phosphorescent’s next chapter, and forecasting some of the conclusions reached after the winding journey of the subsequent eight songs. For the first time, Houck sings someone else’s song on a Phosphorescent album, after his partner Jo Schornikow wrote “The World Is Ending,” a wryly bleak song that communicated a lot of the same things Houck had been feeling. After the newfound warmth of settling down on C’est La Vie, “Fences” and “Impossible House” use domestic imagery not as idylls, but as mechanisms of distance, grappling with the challenges of maintaining long-term partnerships. Though C’est La Vie was never quite as happy as some suggested, Revelator is notably more conflicted, wracked. The song “Wide As Heaven” originated in a dream in which Houck found himself in a crumbling warehouse surrounded by people from different chapters of his life, the song playing over the speakers. “Why does heaven make me feel so sad?” Houck asks, his voice nearly breaking. It’s one of the more dangerous questions we can ask ourselves: What happens when you have a seemingly perfect life, and the darkness still lingers?

By the time Revelator closes with “To Get It Right,” Houck hasn’t necessarily found an answer, but at least has resolved to keep searching for one. Sprawling out over seven minutes, “To Get It Right” is the latest Phosphorescent epic that leaves you just a bit transformed by its conclusion. After all these songs that show us how we can disappear from ourselves — how we drift from the people we love, how we lose sight of things we once knew — “To Get It Right” is a reclamation, the moment where you find your way back to some core truths while still carrying what you learned along the way.

“I like that the record restrains itself the entire time until the last song lays it all out there,” Houck says. “I needed it to have some strength, to not quit. I needed it to say: ’Yeah, we got this.’”

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