Matt McMahon was sitting at a bar in New England, he was thinking ’bout another beer.
Matthew Houck bookends his latest record as Phosphorescent with the soundtrack to a primal exploration. With an eminent hum and cascading chorus, the two-part composition at either end of C’est La Vie might call to mind an adventure, surveying possibly tribal, uncharted grounds. However, in Houck’s calloused hands it heralds instead a journey inward, toward something just as primal and sacred: self-discovery.
C’est La Vie is the singer-songwriter’s seventh full-length release in fifteen years, and his first since 2013’s breathtaking “breakup” album Muchacho. Despite the time gap, C’est La Vie feels like a continuation of the previous album, extrapolating upon its rich musical themes and marking his personal growth since he retreated to a small community in Mexico and wrote it five years ago. Since then he’s met his wife, moved to Nashville — closer to his Alabama, his native state, than Brooklyn — and had a couple kids, and all of those developments are woven in the fabric of the album that’s resulted.
If Muchacho was a break-up album, documenting Houck’s heartbreak and attempts towards redemption, C’est La Vie is an album concerned with unions, the romantic artist celebrating his newfound family and ruminating on the lifestyle changes that ensue. It’s still a largely insular affair, but the inclusion of these relationships adds a welcomed breath of levity.
As a whole, the album observes a simplified idea of life’s pleasures and priorities. It creates an almost pastoral image of domesticity, adorned with rain-soaked fields, a lawn of farm animals, and a decade’s worth of baggage represented through the unglamorous burden of carrying rocks. A simple tale of parental sacrifice centered on Jesus at Christmastime, “Christmas Down Under” pulls all these ideas together into the album’s finest bit of folklore-building.
Like his previous work, these new songs retain that tinge of inescapable sadness; the cracks in his voice always carry. When a note gets caught in the back of Houck’s throat, as it’s oft wont to do, it signals all the past struggles he’s faced and the knowledge of their presence lurking around the nearest corner. But that presence only seems to make his otherwise cheerful tenor all the more earned and charming. The ragtime sing-along “New Birth in New England,” a beautiful mobius strip of an ode to his wife and newborn — with the effervescence of ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky” and the reflection of Sturgill Simpson’s “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)” — would come off too earnestly in anyone else’s mouth. Here, Houck just sounds relieved to get to perform a song so exuberant, and allude to each and every loved one as “honey” as much as possible.
Similar to his invocations of such outdated terms of endearment, there’s an antiquity to the album’s accompanying musical arrangements (which should not be mistaken with Houck’s gorgeous, roomy self-production that, like on Muchacho, provides a crystalline end product). These are jaunty parlor tunes, meditative sea shanties, and arcing hymnals culled from another time and place altogether, smuggled into the present through Houck and veteran mixer Vance Powell’s mastery behind the boards. Even when trying their hand at a psychedelic folk jam or devotional music, the tracks shine with a glossy finish and the touch of a vocoder.
And while the record never quite eclipses the immaculate first side of the band’s previous record, because it’s cut from the same cloth it offers a great foil to the overbearing weight of Muchacho’s most dramatic moments.
Perhaps it’s because I’d just recently watched it, but C’est La Vie reminds me in places of James Gray’s 2017 epic biographical drama The Lost City of Z. Much like Matthew Houck, the film’s protagonist — explorer and member of the Royal Geographical Society, Percival Fawcett, struggles to reconcile his career pursuits with his growing family and responsibilities to them. Amidst the gorgeous earth tones of a Pre- and Post-War England and the Indigenous jungles of South America, scenes in which the album could very well score, Percival wavers back and forth between discoveries, of uncharted territory and of self.
Often it is the unknown that guides him, but even more so it is the image of his wife and children.
In a pivotal scene, Percival’s wife Nina, instrumental in his worldly discoveries, assures him in his endeavors, “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp.” On Muchacho, Houck’s reach was love, and you get the sense on C’est La Vie, it’s domestic life. You can hear the album being conceived as Houck moves from New York City to Tennessee, as he begins to raise his children with the love of his life, as he builds the giant studio he would go on to record it in. And by all indications, he’s well on his way to charting that new territory for himself.