An Ode to Displacement
by Rachael Maddux
Matthew Houck is thirty-one years old and has a head full of shaggy light-brown hair of which there is increasingly more in the back than the front. He's a musician, known best by the name Phosphorescent, although about ten years ago, he self-released one album as Fillup Shack. It was called Hipolit and maybe you can buy it somewhere online if you try hard enough. That was after he moved to Athens, Georgia, but before he found his footing there, changed his name and made a couple other records for small labels: first, A Hundred Times or More in 2003 for Athens' Warm Records; then, Aw Come Aw Wry in 2005 for Durham, North Carolina's Misra. The two albums are raw, thrumming collections of oblique folk that alternate between slow-sprawling ponderings on life and incantatory summonings of death. The last song on the second record is eighteen minutes and fifty-eight seconds of the sound of rain falling and car tires swishing through puddles on a nearby road, no voices or music, as if Houck had just been lifted from this mortal coil and left his four-track running.
Before Athens, Houck lived in Auburn, Alabama, where he played his wobbly early songs in coffeehouses and bars and wherever else would have him. He thought about going to college but never did. Before Auburn, there was Huntsville, where he went to middle and high school and where he played music, sometimes in loose cover bands with friends but mostly alone in his bedroom. And before Huntsville, there was Toney, about sixteen miles up Highway 53, where there were his parents and their self-sustaining farm and all its animals and the guitar his mom played sometimes and taught him to play, too. In Toney, there was also the radio: the pop and country stations piping in from elsewhere—Huntsville or Birmingham or someplace, he was never sure. Toney sits at the very top of the state, right smack-dab between the northwestern- and northeastern-most corners, like a tack pinning Alabama to the rest of the map, but it might as well have been any of the so many other anywheres that fed almost exclusively on a musical diet of Poison and Nirvana and Garth Brooks in the late '80s and early '90s.
In 2007, after Houck had been in Athens for a while, making music when he wasn't working odd jobs so that he could make music, he signed as Phosphorescent to the Dead Oceans label, based out of Bloomington, Indiana, and then released Pride, which he recorded every bit of completely by himself. There is no human accompaniment, at least, but several songs seem backed up by choirs of miserable ghosts, the percussion often knocking and rattling like stuff shifting around in a room at night when you know no one else is there, so what else could it be except some tortured specter? His voice, always snagging on the edge of a desperately lonely warble, sounds threadbare, layered upon layers of itself just to keep out the cold and the fear.
But if there were ghosts, he left them far behind when, just after Pride's release, he moved out of the South for the first time in his life. He landed in Brooklyn, and this geographical change has since become the most-noted aspect of Houck's personal biography. "Athens-to-Brooklyn transplant," he's introduced as, or "Brooklyn-by-way-of-Athens," or "now-Brooklynite." It's as if he only started living once he arrived in New York, which, of course, is always the story New York tells about itself.
We think we have an idea of what kind of music is made in Athens and what life is like there (the dying spark of a once-legendary music scene, all howls and jangle and theremin, flickering as the twin communities of artists and college football devotees orbit each other in perpetuity), and we think we have an idea of what kind of music is made in Brooklyn and what life is like there (that Ellis Island of creative hopefuls; the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning for an opening gig at Terminal 5), and we figure the shift between those two places—not to mention the physical act of the move itself, all those boxes, all those miles—will at least have some bearing on the work of the singer/songwriter who decamps from one to the other.
The names of places are codes for bigger things, we tell ourselves. But we trick ourselves.
Houck's recent move was just one of a hundred—maybe a thousand—smaller but more painful uprootings in the past few years of his life; it was not the most important or the most traumatic or the most inspiring. For a touring musician, relocating from one end of the Eastern seaboard to the other is a simple act. It's point A to a faraway point B, but both points are home, no matter how much space and time sits between them. What's harder, always, is the perpetual setting down and ripping up of being on the road, of the idea of home being reduced to a tessellating series of gas stations and sticky green rooms and low, dim stages and hotels, if you're lucky, or friends' and strangers' floors if you're broke or trying not to be. You can have many homes in your life, sure, but on the road you're lucky if you get to stretch your legs in any one place, let alone feel it out long enough to let it start weaseling itself into your heart, the way that homes tend to do. Meanwhile, unsure of where you are, you forget where you've been and who else was there. If you're lucky, they forget you, too; if you're not lucky, they remember and grow tired, angry, sad—and when you go home, you're a stranger there, too, just like it's another new town, but you're not leaving tomorrow.
This tour-induced physical and existential transience forms the shivering spine of Phosphorescent's newest album, Here's to Taking It Easy, which Dead Oceans released in May of this year. Houck thinks he could probably make an album every six months if he weren't always on the road, but touring, at least, gives him plenty of time to plot out the one he gets to make every year or so. He generally knows how he's going to approach each of his albums before he starts—not that he scripts them out, but he seems incapable of starting on a project without some kind of general roadmap of where he'll be going. Assuming this tendency applies to literal roadmaps, he's probably a good guy to be on tour with, actually. For Pride, he knew he was going to make it alone, even though he'd been playing with a full band for a while; for Here's to Taking It Easy, he knew it was going to have a fuller sound, something more middle-of-the road and recognizable, and that the lyrics would be more direct, more narrative—more names of real people and places, fewer cows with their mouths full of tears.
He drew in a handful of musical touchstones, too: Bobby Charles's self-titled solo LP, Ronnie Wood's I've Got My Own Album to Do, Bob Dylan's Desire. They're not incredibly obvious references (his one true tribute album is 2009's To Willie, a record of Willie Nelson covers), but they're there, sliding around like scratched old CDs tossed on the passenger-side floorboard of a dingy white sixteen-seater.
Neil Young's Harvest is maybe the most evident touchstone, but Houck didn't notice at first. It was also only later that he realized how this record he'd started out with a pretty clear idea of but no thematic concept for had quite unwittingly become a nine-track ode to road-wearied displacement. His desire to be home, to be still, is so overwhelming that he even wishes for death—winsome, but so sure of his request: "I wish these nights of pleasure and days of pain weren't so tightly bound/and I wish I was in Heaven sitting down." Like Harvest, Here's to Taking It Easy is heavy with pedal steel and heartache and a mangled emotional clarity that comes only from being in many many places in a short period of time—but like Harvest, it's deeply comforting despite all of that, an album that becomes a kind of home of its own for lack of a real one, its steady roof and four walls and lamplit windows shining out into the darkness and pulling you in from the cold strangeness of night.
Houck's arrival in Brooklyn may have signified to some an oncoming shift in his music, an eventual move away from his near-strangling Southern roots and toward a more sublime urban experimentalism. But it didn't matter where he moved to, really, as long as he landed somewhere and then subsequently left it for most of a year.
Perhaps the homesickness explains why Here's to Taking It Easy wound up being the first Phosphorescent album on which Houck references his birth state as anything more than a lyrical blind item. No matter how long it's been, no matter how many homes come between, you always miss most the one you left first. The opening track and the lead single is "It's Hard to Be Humble (When You're From Alabama)," which pulls its title from that old construct used to excuse the outsized pride of everyone from the Irish to Nebraskans to Mac Davis. We think "Athens-via-Brooklyn" means something, and it does, but not what we need it to—and the same goes for the idea of hailing from Alabama. It probably has been assumed that Houck doesn't talk much about where he grew up because he's ashamed of it somehow, wary of it being the butt of every joke about the South but for the existence of Mississippi, always looking askance at how its past is irrevocably tangled up with his own. But although he admits he doesn't go back enough, he's not unproud of Alabama. Here's to Taking It Easy may well be his Harvest, but he's caught in the crossfires of Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd's famous flamewar: He's got the weight of the world on his shoulders and it's breaking his back, to be sure, but goddamn, the skies are so blue. His departure wasn't an exodus; he's not an ex-pat. He's just following a roadmap that he can only see one little bit of at a time.