Define: ‘Phosphorescent’: An object or colour which glows in the dark with a soft light, but gives out little or no heat.

Matthew Houck, aka Phosphorescent, returns and lives up to the Collins Dictionary definition. The Alabaman, now based in Nashville, is the human equivalent of optimism, dimmed. Revelator, his ninth studio album follows the breakthrough albums of Muchacho and C’est La Vie, bringing his New York cool to the home of country music. The influence is loud and clear across the nine songs here; pedal steel (obvs) meets the insouciant instrumentation, which in turn complements the understated explorations of Revelator.  

The underlying melancholy of Phosphorescent’s music is present, no doubt a mood enhanced by a near-fatal bout of meningitis, bringing children into the world and oh, a global pandemic as well. Revelator might at first sound like it offers a fresh outlook but first the album wrestles with an ongoing, ambient sense of dread.

Dealing in themes of working at life, drifting through relationships and enjoying those hard-won moments of light – Revelator is a slow-burn meditation on all of these against a backdrop of gorgeously structured songs and harmonies.

“I got tired of sadness / I got tired of all the madness / I got tired of being a badass all the time,” opens the title track. It’s a plaintive mission statement with which Houck reintroduces Phosphorescent. It perhaps alludes to the very different approaches to life in the Big Apple and Nashville. His new home offers a wider space to explore his musicality.

‘The World Is Ending’, written by his partner Jo Schornikow, takes a cynical look at the way many people view the world through their own lens rather than with genuine empathy. While closer to home, the companion pieces of ‘Fences’ and ‘Impossible House’ examine the challenges of maintaining long-term partnerships.

Houck asks on ‘Wide As Heaven’: “Why would heaven make me feel so sad? Why would heaven never notice?” It’s a teasing question, pondering what happens when a seemingly perfect life can’t shake off a lingering darkness.

Songs continue to contrast between the chinks of hope (‘Moon Behind the Clouds’), the objective ordinariness of the everyday (‘All The Same’) and Dylan-esque ‘Poem On The Men’s Room Wall’. All, in their own ways, consider the importance of viewing life’s challenges as unique individuals. Revelator really in this sense epitomizes the country music mantra of ‘three chords and the truth’. 

It takes that basic principle and elevates it to new heights on closer ‘To Get It Right’. Sprawling out over seven minutes, it is an epic track that leaves you just a bit transformed by its conclusion. The gentle slow burn gradually rises to an all-out climax. It is a clarion call of hope. The hope is that hard times will pay off if we stick with the tough bits in life, like this song demonstrates after the preceding eight. The song’s cinematic cosmic synths and ever looser, free-er drums, pianos and organs build a communal in-it-together gospel vibe.

Revelator is a revelation of what modern Americana can be but also for the beauty of melancholy in providing space for reflection and hope. A brilliant album from an artist one feels is ready to go on a whole new trajectory. Watch Phosphorescent shine a little brighter from now on.