On 2013’s Muchacho, singer-songwriter Matthew Houck portrayed love as a menacing, disfiguring force. In the years since that album’s release, he’s gotten married, had two children, and relocated from New York to Nashville, where he hand-built a new studio and recorded C’est La Vie, his seventh album as Phosphorescent. Structurally, both efforts are bookended by similar intro and outro tracks rife with mystically tinged, largely wordless vocal reverb, while each album’s second half relies on sleepy tempos, plaintive piano, and the melancholic whine of pedal steel. Thematically, though, C’est La Vie shifts Houck’s focus from turbulent relationships and a desperate struggle for emotional survival to a desire to sustain newfound equilibrium.
Though Houck’s songwriting is no longer stepped in abject misery, a sense of wistfulness still pervades much of C’est La Vie; rather than struggle against forces beyond his control, Houck contemplates what it means to surrender to them for the sake of his happiness. “It’s best to let it rest,” he sings on the meditative “There From Here,” a sentiment he echoes on “C’est La Vie No. 2,” on which he lists the impulses he’s outgrown as he’s gotten older: “I don’t write all night burning holes up to heaven no more.” Though there’s a twinge of regret in his voice, Houck is largely overwhelmed by a sense of relief. The song’s lyrics also seem to comment on his own past work, which was often replete with mythical and religious imagery. He mostly avoids such indulgences here, and when he does sing about dragons and martyrs on the smoldering “Christmas Down Under,” it feels out of place on an album much more devoted to marveling at the wonder of a quotidian existence.
To that end, Houck eschews traditional storytelling for something more impressionistic, imbuing ephemeral moments with vivid profundity, whether it’s moonlight striking his sleeping son’s hair on “My Beautiful Boy” or feeling the transcendence of human connection from a chance encounter at a piano bar on the upbeat “New Birth in New England.” And while Houck’s tender and frayed voice continues to be his strongest asset, a blend of acoustic and electronic elements create some of the album’s most impactful sonic moments, as on the swelling crescendo of the stirring “Around the Horn.”
Houck doesn’t totally break from the well-worn country music tropes to which he’s prone. On “These Rocks,” a listless, repetitive piano ballad that feels half-formed, he sings of being drunk for a decade and off-handedly ponders whether he should “put that stuff away.” And yet, throughout the rest of the album, Houck avoids sounding maudlin or sentimental, portraying contentment as a perpetual journey, not a final destination. C’est La Vie doesn’t thrum with the roiling tension of Muchacho, but in finding a sense of serenity and calm in whatever life throws at him, Houck strikes a balance between happiness and longing that’s often nothing short of sublime.