Phosphorescent Revelator Review: Matthew Houk draws the veil further back on eighth album

Nashville-based songwriter brings a quiet reckoning on the latest Phosphorescent album, Revelator


by Victoria Segal |
Updated on




MATTHEW HOUCK isn’t one for moving fast. It’s not just his release schedule where he maintains a careful pace, measuring out five years or so between records. Even at his speediest – New Birth In New England from 2018’s C’est La Vie, for example – he tends to keep his music steady, his delivery unrushed, pedal steel and backing vocals holding his songs tight. Here’s To Taking It Easy, as the title of Phosphorescent’s 2010 album put it.

Here’s to a sense of false security, too, though. Revelator might have been recorded in Houck’s Nashville studio, but that’s about the only safe space here. As that biblically stringent title suggests, these songs are quietly apocalyptic on both personal and universal fronts, an attempt to cut through the distracting, comforting static of life and see what’s really going on.

For all the hesitant second-guessing of Houck’s phrasing, the title track is brutal: “How can I get it right?/I don’t even like what I write,” he sings over Jim White’s softly disruptive drums, “I don’t even like what I like any more.” Time is an implacable enemy, described on Wide As Heaven as a “Raven with a beak of blood/Crying at seven every morning”, while the country-roads Street Hassle of Impossible House prods at both the wonders and fragilities of domesticity (extra points for the Home Alone reference).

Out in the wider world, things aren’t easier: A Moon Behind The Clouds’ Sweet Jane chug illuminates “a country on fire”, while The World Is Ending, beautifully written by Houck’s partner, the Australian singer-songwriter Jo Schornikow, couldn’t be more explicit, a gentle unfurling of existential dread. Never showy or histrionic, Houck is also subtly playful: the surprisingly deep A Poem On The Men’s Room Wall, bringing Phyllis Diller back into 21st century discourse, has the lightly worn wisdom of Nixon-era Lambchop.

If Phosphorescent have sometimes struggled to establish a sharp-edged identity, that care and delicacy is one of Houck’s core values: what might be a bleak set of songs about fragile ecosystems and unsustainable lives is saved from desperation by the warmth of the instrumentation – strings, synths, piano – and the watchful humanity of the lyrics.

Mindfulness suggests colouring books and resignation implies inertia, but Houck seems to deal in a kind of radical acceptance. “Leafy trees and empty trees/They’re all the same,” he declares on the unpaved country sway of All The Same, sounding less like the expression of a pancake-flat affect, more like the acknowledgement that there’s a picture so big you can’t even see the frame. “To get it right is hard to do,” sings Houck over a thunderclap of keyboards as the album closes. Like the rest of Revelator, it has the ring of truth.

Revelator is out now on Verve/Decca. Listen/Buy: Spotify | Apple Music | Amazon | Rough Trade

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