Muchacho starts with a calyptic arpeggiation reminiscent of Jurgen Muller’s fantastic Science Of The Sea album; this is overlaid with vocals that mimic the timbre and tone of something from The Lion King and, oddly enough, follow a melodic structure similar to “Kiss the Girl” from The Little Mermaid. There is no other way for me to describe it: and Muchacho doesn’t repeat the trick. One gets the idea that “Sun, Arise!” was put on the album because Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck just kind of liked the way it sounded. And that’s how it is for much of Muchacho – a varied album whose variations are based on the simple idea that someone liked each of these songs enough to put them all on an album together. Variation is good, but some of these songs are not.
The half-life of “Sun, Arise!”’s Lion King vibe lets it survive across the first three tracks on Muchacho, mostly through delayed drums and reverb-saturated vocals. These songs are similar in tone to Bright Eyes’ Digital Ash From A Digital Urn, albeit with less of an annoying “look what I can do” energy to them and instead coming from somewhere almost devotional. But there is a shift on Muchacho, audible as early as the third track “Ride On / Right On,” towards a beefier and more Americana-inflicted sound. “Ride On / Right On” is a great track, and the next song – “Terror in the Canyons” – perhaps perfectly summarizes the albums conflation of soundtrack pop with breezy country rock. But things take a turn for the worse when Houck embraces this country aesthetic fully.
To Houck’s credit, the production on Muchacho is consistent and the intended mood is palpable – almost visual. The album evokes the feeling of a breezy stroll down an extended mesa; with all thirsts quenched and all human contact soft and uncomplicated. It’s like if the canyoneer James Franco plays in 127 Hours didn’t get his arm stuck in a rock and instead just had a great day climbing around some canyons in Utah and then went home and took a nap. But the songwriting on the second half of Muchacho doesn’t feel like it deserves such careful and evocative production. “A Charm / A Blade” sounds like a miserable deep cut from one of the Band albums that came after The Last Waltz, and “Muchacho’s Tune” is a Dylan-esque piano ballad that doesn’t deliver on emotional resin or visceral spirit.
“A New Anhedonia” tugs, candidly, at some pretty American heartstrings, and the song’s wide open, quick mounting, gospelized chorus is a nice payoff. The last few tracks of Muchacho (“The Quotidian Beasts” through “Sun’s Arising”) are listenable filler. They feel like songs that would occupy the vacuous space on a bloated triple LP, which this is not. Ultimately, Muchacho gets too caught up in its own aping of country and folk traditions to make any sort of statement – however genuine on Houck’s part it may actually be – that is actually true to the heart. Swooping, grasslandy production does much by way of making Muchacho seem like a worthwhile listen, but it’s a forgettable one at best.