Phosphorescent - "It's Hard to Be Humble (When You're From Alabama)" (Here's To Taking It Easy)
Phosphorescent’s fourth album opens with a greater clarity than any work of the band’s to date. Elevated by slide guitar and ebullient horns, “It’s Hard to Be Humble (When You’re From Alabama)” has a loose, rambling feel to it, suggesting that last year’s Willie Nelson hat-top To Willie was more than a one-off venture. That clarity, though -- distinctive guitar solos! horn section! -- may be worrisome to those already familiar with the group’s previous work.
The strengths of the Matthew Houck-led band have always stemmed from their command of atmosphere, with Houck’s voice a harmonized howl emerging from thick, humid chambers of sound. 2007’s Pride and 2005’s Aw Come Aw Wry both featured songs that pushed or exceeded the 10-minute mark, taking country-song laments to a surreal and impressionistic level. And while it’s welcome to see Houck working with a full band and expanding what might be expected from a Phosphorescent album, the idea of Phosphorescent making a move toward more straightforward country-rock sacrifices some of what makes them distinctive.
Thankfully, that isn’t where Here’s To Taking It Easy ends up headed. While this is the most accessible Phosphorescent album, Houck’s flair for musical surrealism is still very much on hand. The counterpoint vocals heard on “Hej, Me I’m Light” eventually lead to a familiar-sounding cascade of voices that bring the song to a close, and Houck’s voice is at its most mournful as “Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly)” opens. But overall, the musical mood is brighter even as the lyrics and vocals abound with regrets. The languorous mood of “We’ll Be Here Soon” might summon blissful afternoons in a different context, but here Houck sounds like a man trying desperately to avoid heartbreak.
Perhaps it’s coincidence, but this also marks the first Phosphorescent album to feature a strong sense of place. Besides Here’s To Taking It Easy‘s opener, “The Mermaid Parade” finds Houck wandering Coney Island on the day of the event in question, bringing his thoughts back to a relationship. And “Los Angeles,” nearly twice the length of anything else on the album, shares the mood of Easy‘s cover, in which a pair of eyes hovers ominously over a view of mountains and palm trees. It’s a solid ending to an album that seeks balance between sun-lit transcendence and dark nights of the soul. And even if there’s nothing here as harrowing as Pride‘s “Cocaine Lights,” that might be for the best. In the end, the artistic path Houck seems to be following is less tied to country-rock in its aspirations and more reminiscent of Van Morrison in its search for a balance between exhausting emotionalism and a near-religious search for bliss.