It's unusual when an artist's pivotal album is a collection of covers extolling one of his heroes, but that's the case with Phosphorescent, the Brooklyn-via-Athens outfit fronted by bushy-haired Matthew Houck. Last year, he released his fourth full-length, To Willie, which gathered 11 new versions of Willie Nelson deep cuts in heartfelt tribute. Houck avoided obvious hits in favor of personal favorites: There was "Too Sick To Pray," but not "On the Road Again"; "Heartaches of a Fool," but not "Crazy." It's a fan's mash note to his idol, made with obvious care and affection not just for Nelson but for his songs about drinking, touring, and loving.
To Willie represents a turning point for Phosphorescent, marking a significant change in music and approach. Before, it was essentially a solo project, with Houck playing all the instruments and producing his own albums. His dark Americana seemed to traipse the same terrain mapped out by Will Oldham's Palace projects, favoring carefully oblique lyrics and rambling, eccentric arrangements. Houck's 2007 album Pride stands as his most accomplished effort from this period, a wild and lonely folk-country exorcism that at the time painted him as an adventurous and singular act while greatly expanding his fanbase.
So it came as a surprise to his label and his listeners that he followed up that success by hiring a full band and recording a covers album. To Willie received glowing reviews, but it's a transitional album, allowing Houck to explore new modes of songwriting and new approaches to arranging. His latest, Here's to Taking It Easy, fulfills the promise of that game-changer by showing that Houck has taken Nelson's lessons to heart.
Today, Phosphorescent sounds like a completely different act, partly because it's officially expanded from a solo endeavor into a full-blown band. There's a casual feel to Here's to Taking It Easy that flirts with sloppiness and almost lives up the album's title. In fact, Houck refuses to practice with the band, preferring to let the songs remain loose and unpredictable. Perhaps because of or despite that rule, the band sounds more road-worn and world-weary this time around, professional but not exactly polite as they spin songs such as "I Don't Care If There's Cursing" and "Los Angeles" into lengthy, purposeful jams. The opening "It's Hard To Be Humble (When You're from Alabama)" is a horn-driven stomp that's just outside of Shotgun Willie's crosshairs, and "Heaven, Sittin' Down" slyly rewrites the old blues-gospel standard as a tour-weary anthem about the horrors of life on the road. "I wish the road we were taking wasn't made for breakin' down," Houck sings. "I wish those nights of pleasure and those days of pain weren't so tightly bound."
That sense of musical and professional wanderlust, especially as it impinges on romantic security, is one of the main themes running throughout Nelson's catalog, and without sounding derivative or winking, Here's to Taking It Easy similarly evokes the emotional detritus of a life spent in bars and clubs. According to both artists, the road messes with your worldview, and the constant motion never lets you get a steady perspective on anything. "Baby, all these cities ain't they all starting to look all the same?" he asks repeatedly on "It's Hard To Be Humble."
The album's centerpiece, the devastating "Mermaid Parade," is a bicoastal divorce saga, with Houck visiting Coney Island while thinking of his soon-to-be-ex in Los Angeles. Taking a vocal cue from Nelson, Houck eyeballs the song's meter suspiciously, cramming more words into the melody than it can hold. The performance is measured and sorrowful, and, ultimately, he can't find the words to express his regret. All he can do is throw up his hands and sing, "Goddamn it, Amanda, oh goddamn it all." It's one of the most unguarded and affecting moments you'll hear this year.
Not long ago, Houck would never have been able to sell a line so sophisticatedly straightforward and nakedly emotional, nor would he have tried. Perhaps that's the most valuable lesson he learned from Nelson. On Here's to Taking It Easy, he sounds less like an indie musician and more like a country artist, which means he's not self-consciously making art but simply playing directly to his audience, whether on record or on stage. There's not even a whiff of condescension or sellout, though, just a shared sense of road-worn fatalism. Both Matthew Houck and Willie Nelson understand that the lure of performing is stronger than the security of home, but there's always a song waiting at the end of even the messiest breakup. Their loss is our gain.
Phosphorescent, with Doug Paisley
Young Avenue Deli
Friday, July 16th
9 p.m.; $12