Matthew Houck, the man behind Phosphorescent, has meandered, like the dazed post-hippie soul that he is, from extreme pastoralism (2007’s Pride, which sounded like the work of an agrarian tribe that had never seen electricity) to extreme debauchery (2010’s soused, country-rock tumble Here’s to Taking It Easy) and back again. At every step of the way, he’s sounded dazed, trembling, and awestruck: his voice, a small, hiccupping drawl, is a fragile instrument with a thousand built-in soul catches, and he hits every single one like a drunk tumbling down a staircase.
On “Song For Zula,” off of the upcoming Muchacho, he sounds like he’s died and woken up on an unknown shoreline somewhere. The sound is bigger, airier, and more mysterious than anything the band’s ever done. Lightly skirling violin lines and gull-cry synths circle above, and silvery threads of pedal-steel guitar waft gently by. He opens with a mumbled quote from Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” and then spins out a difficult-to-parse, metaphysical-feeling tale of abjection (“I lay my face to the salt”) and throwing off offered support: (“You will not see me fall/or see me struggle to stand/To be acknowledged by some touch from his gnarled hands.”) It is a stunning piece of music; it sounds like an allegory, like a dream.