Phosphorescent – C'est La Vie

Billed as Phosphorescent's most reflective album yet, C'est La Vie features some of his most intricate arrangements to date

Album Review by Max Sefton | 04 Oct 2018
Album title: C'est La Vie
Artist: Phosphorescent
Label: Dead Oceans
Release date: 5 Oct

C’est La Vie’s opener, Black Moon / Silver Waves might just have the most arresting intro of the year. As Matthew Houck furiously plucks at his guitar, a dark cloud of choral voices descend as if they’re sweeping in across the prairie. It’s claustrophobic and tense, crackling with an electrical tension as if Houck’s guitar is skipping along just a step ahead of the incoming storm. And then it fades to silence.

Since 2013’s masterful Muchacho, the Phosphorescent main man has left New York for Nashville, had two kids, built a studio from the ground up and almost died of meningitis. His lyrics can be heavy but somehow he never quite rattles the nerves as much as on that one intro track.

C’est La Vie No.2 foregrounds Houck’s evocative lyrics as he reflects on the events of the past five years and when he sings, 'I wrote all night / Like the fire of my words could burn a hole up to heaven / I don’t write all night burnin’ holes up to heaven no more,' you get a real insight into the push and pull that has kept him away from releasing music for so long. Like Muchacho’s exceptional Song for Zula, there’s an almost electronic insistence to the subtly chiming chords and perhaps it’s no surprise that a touch of The Beatles’ own philosophical reflection, Let It Be slips into the final few bars.

The irrepressibly sprightly New Birth in New England owes a debt to Paul Simon’s Graceland, both in the elastic arrangement and set of lyrics which find the singer seemingly in conversation with old loves and new. Life can be tough but rebirth is often just around the corner. There From Here is Houck at his most rumpled and world weary, while Around the Horn is one of the heaviest tracks from Phosphorescent to date, with a repetitive space rock riff and enormous Led Zeppelin drums stretched out over eight minutes.

Even with a crack backing band and the freedom that his own studio affords, C’est La Vie is not entirely a success. These Rocks would make a middling Ryan Adams song, while the experimental Christmas Down Under sees an auto-tune-addled Houck sounding as if he's singing from beneath the waves. Similarly to win over new listeners there may be easier ways in than the string-assisted prog of Black Waves / Silver Moon that closes the record.

Mostly though, if you’re already well ensconced in the Phosphorescent universe you’ll be pleased to discover that despite all the upheavals, Houck’s melodic gifts are still intact. This has been billed as his most reflective album, a chance to make connections across his musical career but there’s a quiet confidence too, delivering some of his most intricate arrangements and roaming far beyond the Americana tag that he was often filed under. C’est La Vie just goes to show, you never can tell.

Listen to: New Birth in New England, C'est La Vie No.2