Musicians often head to New York, it’s a familiar story. But something magical happened when Matthew Houck picked up stakes halfway through making his new Phosphorescent record, Pride, and moved to Brooklyn from Athens, Georgia.
Raised in Alabama, Houck has always made music steeped in the Southern-gothic tradition, a sweet American folk soaked in atmosphere like a pound cake in rum. On 2005’s Aw Come Aw Wry, our weary-voiced bandleader cemented his reputation for making masterpiece albums filled with hallelujahs for both grace and tragedy with songs that swung from ramshackle and joyous to broken and pleading in the space of a prayer. The live show swung along this arc – with Houck sometimes backed by up to 14 or 15 members – creating a full-blown, shambling, marching-brass-band-revival-tent celebration.
Pride is something different. While it’s not without the moments of sheer abandon that have made Phosphorescent’s work unmistakable–“At Death, A Proclamation” thunders into familiar territory–mostly gone are the messy marching bands and evangelical fervor. Here, Houck instead channels something more mystical and haunting, offering up a dark, meditative set of songs that is all the more spiritual-sounding for its restrained tone. On previous albums, he’s recruited guest musicians to fill the gaps, but on Pride, Houck has only enlisted the services of a makeshift choir, otherwise recording every instrument himself. His achingly cerebral delivery recalls Arthur Russell, but honestly, Pride sounds like nothing else we’ve ever heard. These are poems uttered in an empty field, punctuated by shouts and hollers, as if from a singer either abandoned or possessed. The lyrics are Houck’s strongest ever, wrapped in washed out choral etudes that could be channeled from a rural French chapel or a solemn African tribe in prayer.
Pride sounds like it was made by a man set free. In fact, Pride sounds broken free of time and place altogether. Yet still it is warm, familiar, and welcoming–a record to call home.