Phosphorescent Performs a Character Study on Weary Souls on Revelator

Matthew Houck’s latest endures by operating within time-honored alt-country and rock traditions and pairing the project’s typical soundscapes with laments about feeling out-of-touch.

Music Reviews Phosphorescent
Phosphorescent Performs a Character Study on Weary Souls on Revelator

For Matthew Houck, the singer-songwriter behind Phosphorescent, writing the title-track for his eighth studio album fittingly turned out to be a revelation. “I think it might be the best song I’ve ever written,” said Houck of “Revelator.” This is the song that made me realize I was writing an album. Once the song ‘Revelator’ came to be, I could see what the album could be.” Listening to “Revelator,” which also serves as the album’s opener, it’s easy to see why it proved such a seismic achievement for Houck. Delivered in a tone that’s a little world weary—still optimistic but battered—the song documents departures and transitions: “I got tired of sadness / I got tired of all the madness / I got tired of being a badass all the time,” Houck sings plainly in the opening triplet, which gives way to stark meditations on isolation, a relationship’s demise and the shattering reality of opening up your soul to a closed-off world (“Got my heart open wide / But the city been shut down”). Backed by tasteful, pedal-steel driven arrangements, “Revelator” has all the markings of a classic.

It’s been nearly two decades now since Houck’s critical and commercial breakthrough Pride, and 11 years since he released the album widely considered to be his magnum opus, 2013’s Muchacho (and our year-end #1 album). Like many artists at this stage in their career, Houck seems content to refine rather than reinvent his output, and he spends most of Revelator tackling the same themes that he has long chronicled—continuing to interrogate an often-bleak world with ephemeral moments of magic. His work endures by operating within time-honored alt-country and rock traditions and, for better or for worse, his sound reaches its most polished, fleshed-out apex on Revelator. On “The World Is Ending,” Houck fittingly pairs his timeless, classic soundscape with lyrics about feeling out of touch with modernity (“And all of this new happiness / Makes it all the more uncouth”). A string-heavy lament, the song feels endearingly unmoored to any single era of music—although Houck’s anxieties feel particularly potent in our current moment (“I have never been wrong / I know the world is ending”).

To achieve Revelator’s pristine Americana, Houck recruited an array of talented and experienced musicians—among them being Jack Lawrence of the Raconteurs and Jim White of the Dirty Three. At times, Houck’s revelations can get lost into an aimless fog of luscious sounds created by these music industry veterans—especially evident on “Fences,” where Phosphorescent’s meditations on a relationship in decay get obscured by a samesy blur of pedal steel and organ. Something similar happens on “Wide As Heaven,” a meandering number composed of repetitions of the same two verses that stretches nearly six minutes. By the time we get to the glacial “All The Same,” which features 20 repetitions of the titular phrase, the refrain ends up feeling unintentionally meta.

But the upside of Revelator’s polished and highly cohesive sound is that even relatively minor switch-ups can prove thrilling by comparison. “A Moon Behind The Clouds” brings the Wurlitzer to the front of the mix and re-injects a sense of urgency into the album at-large. Addressing the need to face up to this world’s uglier side, Houck offers an urgent imperative: “Don’t suppose you need to face it / I tell you now you do.” “A Poem on The Men’s Room Wall” proves to be similarly arresting, as Houck reads out various phrases graffitied in the men’s bathroom—“beer is the fear killer” and “Phyllis Diller is a cock thriller” are the standouts. Between projecting the truisms of others, he stumbles upon his own uncomfortable revelation regarding his treatment of another: “I owe you better than that.”

Just as Revelator begins with one of Houck’s most arresting statements to date, so too does it end with one. On “To Get It Right,” he pens a character study of a weary soul battered but not yet broken by this world, bemoaning that “the season fights but it pulls you through / To get it right is hard to do.” As pianos, drums and synths crescendo, Houck triumphantly declares: “To get it right is hard to do / We get it right, it’s what we do.” In the end, the most rewarding celebrations are those we achieve against all odds.

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