For years, Matthew Houck embodied the role of the nomadic raconteur, spinning tales of bleary-eyed nights and unfilled promises through his swampy, beguiling Americana rock project, Phosphorescent. While he toured behind a series of increasingly successful albums, including 2013’s gothic masterpiece, Muchacho, he evinced a feeling that there was something missing in his life — a meaningful companion to accompany him on his journey.
Over the past half-decade, Houck has taken strides to fill that void, first by marrying multi-instrumentalist and current Phosphorescent member Jo Schornikow, and then by moving away from the frenetic environs of Brooklyn to Nashville to raise their two young children.
Many critics have noted the examples of Houck’s seemingly newfound familial bliss on his latest album, C’est La Vie. Houck, however, does not see his latest album as a celebration of domestic satisfaction.
“I feel like this sense of contentment on the album must be true in some way, because a lot of people have heard it that way, but for me personally, it all still felt very much the same as prior records,” says Houck, whose band will perform at the Outside Lands Music Festival on Saturday at 4:55 p.m. at the Sutro Stage. “I don’t hear the peace and happiness — I hear more of the troubling aspects of the stuff. When I sit and write a song, there is something that churns away — something that doesn’t feel content.”
Upon first listen, a song like “Christmas Down Under” sounds like a languid ode to happy moments spent in a tropical paradise, with references to the sun, swimming and sand. But a jagged, Neil Young-esque guitar interlude pummels the song midway through, and by the end, the narrator is ultimately lamenting about being left alone, “’neath the lights of the tiki bar.”
Even the brimming “My Beautiful Boy,” an exuberant paean to fatherhood, has Houck’s trademark moments of doubt and questioning. By the final quarter of the song, Houck is pondering the misery of an eternity away from his son, practically bawling out lines such as “Just what in heaven would I do?/Just walk around and look for you.” Only Houck could agonize over a completely devotional love, because what is one lifetime of connection, when the afterlife will be forever devoid of that emotion?
Houck says many of his sufferings are spurred by the insistence and expectation that finding professional and personal success will lead to happiness. When you have finally arrived and still find emptiness inside, what does that say about your capacity for joy?
“I find myself in that position all the time — sort of wondering about the wondering about,” Houck says. “You get into this little vortex and it’s hard to escape.”
Houck didn’t employ any artifice or opaqueness on the album, abandoning his previous use of clever wordplay and metaphors to relay messages.
“It was a real conscious decision to be transparent and straightforward,” Houck says. “In the past, I might have obscured some of the lyrics or emotions, but I really wanted to be very direct and be very comfortable about that.”
Houck may speak candidly about some of the sorrow in his life, but his live performances are still must-see, electric affairs. Sounding like a Rolling Stones honky-tonk band that drunkenly merged with an ambient pop group, Phosphorescent shows are both mesmerizing and action-packed, bridging genre gaps you didn’t know existed. Outside Lands fans will get an extra opportunity to see that intoxicating mix live, as Phosphorescent will be playing one of the festival’s “Night” shows on Thursday, August 8 at the New Parish in Oakland.
Saturday, Aug. 10, 4:55-5:45 p.m.,
Night Show: Phosphorescent,
Thursday, Aug. 8, at the New Parish, 1743 San Pablo Ave, Oakland, $30; thenewparish.com