By 2007, Matthew Houck had perfected his unique brand of country torch songs and recorded a study in absolute misery, Pride. The album trades in such abject despair that it’s still difficult for me to listen to casually. Pride often sounds to me like a beautiful suicide letter, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it inspired its own Werther Effect. Though that record is stunning, it’s something of a relief to discover that his newest album, Here’s to Taking It Easy, is unlikely to trigger a crippling depressive episode. Granted, Houck is still one sad bastard, but he’s filled with enough piss and vinegar to present some of liveliest songs since Aw Come Aw Wry.
One of Phosphorescent’s greatest limitations has been the fact that Houck traditionally records by himself. But Here’s to Taking It Easy features a full band, and it makes all the difference. From the country soul of the opener,”It’s Hard to Be Humble,” to the Neil Young-inspired monolith that closes the album, “Los Angeles,” the band fortifies Houck’s fragile voice. All the pianos and pedal guitars and mellotrons and horns and strings help make this Phosphorescent’s most dynamic and engaging album to date. All of this wonderful instrumentation would mean very little if Houck hadn’t also refined his songwriting chops. He’s clearly learned some craft lessons from the Redheaded Stranger (see Houck’s Willie Nelson record To Willie). Gone are the ponderous 8 minute bedroom epics like “My Love, My Lamb.” In their place, Houck has recorded a batch of 4 minute beauties like “Nothing was Stolen” and “Heaven, Sittin’ Down.” The songs usually begin was country-inspired ditties that usually grow more nuanced with every instrument added to the mix. The last two minutes of “I Don’t Care If There’s Cursing” piles on the instruments (pedal steel, harmonica, piano, classical guitar) until the song swells into something much grander than its humble beginning.
In the best songs on the album (“Nothing was Stolen,” “The Mermaid Parade,” “I Don’t Care if There’s Cursing”), Houck balances the thoughtful instrumentation with his heartbreaking lyrics. The album’s finest moment, “The Mermaid Parade,”is a modest masterpiece of songwriting. The song, of course, is about the heartbreaking disintegration of a marriage. Houck tries to convince his wife that’s handling it well, but he lets his mask slip in the second verse: “And yeah I got a new friend too/And yeah she’s pretty and small/But goddamit Amanda/Oh goddamit all.” On paper it doesn’t look like much, but to hear Houck throw up his hands in frustration is one of the genuinely moving moments I’ve heard all year. The specificity of that line makes me wince every time. And then there’s that sympathetic lead guitar that takes charge in the final third of the song. Like I’ve said elsewhere, that troublemaker of a guitar buys another round of drinks and pats Houck on the back, telling him that Amanda was a good woman.
On Pride, Houck sounded defeated, summoning only enough energy to announce that he was bowing out of it all. But Here’s to Taking It Easy is mercifully filled with song that seem to acknowledge that a) we’re all sad but b) there’s still life out there enough to live so c) let’s bitch about what we can’t change and d) let’s vow to address what we can change. Matthew Houck may still be entirely miserable, but it’s heartening to hear that he has some friends getting his back.
Rating: 8 / 10
mp3: The Mermaid Parade