In the past, Matthew Houck — he who is Phosphorescent — has dressed up his compositions in elaborate arrangements and ecstatic delivery. But when during the recording of his new album he uprooted from Athens, Georgia, and moved to Brooklyn, he left all of that behind. Emotionally naked and instrumentally threadbare, Pride is the sound of a songwriter starting over from scratch to rediscover what he’s really made of. In Houck’s case, that turned out to be a cross-wired sensibility that’s as indebted to traditional American folk music and Southern spirituality as it is avant-garde intellectualism. The resulting album, which Houck recorded and performed almost exclusively by himself, is haunting, spare, and heart-wrenching.
Most of the songs on Pride are based on the most meager instrumentation. “Wolves” consists of little more than hesitant ukulele plucks and a wheezing accordion, and opener “A Picture of Our Torn-Up Praise” is a skeleton of acoustic guitar and rattling hand percussion. But such restrained accompaniment never seems underdeveloped, given the strength of Houck’s laconic lyrics and the sheer emotional heft of his weary, drawling timbre.
In large part, these songs are so compelling because he layers countless tracks of his voice — and, on “Wolves,” those of occasional choir members including Jana Hunter, Annie Palmer, and Ray Raposa (Castanets). Rich and swelling, these voices seem to stretch in slow motion, while even more tracks of Houck screaming and whooping in the distance punctuate the ragged harmony. The sheer quantity of voices following the same, stark melody is like an artist tracing a silhouette until the overlapping, deviating lines blur into something far fuller and more vibrant than the original outline. As such, Houck’s vocals transform simple, unadorned songs into cathartic hymns to loneliness and redemption.
Splicing the earnestness of Will Oldham with the atmospheric stylization of Grizzly Bear, Pride is an affecting record that transcends the usual trappings — cloying autobiography, indulgent self-analysis — of such emotion-drenched music. Instead, it leans heavily on the drama inherent in a handful of chords and the pathos loaded in the human voice to communicate everything from anguish to triumph. As the teary-eyed “Cocaine Lights” drifts into the album’s title track and finale, a chorus of voices carries on the previous song’s chord progression. The voices yodel, hoot, and wail like Leonard Cohen’s “drunken midnight choir” for six-plus minutes. It’s an epic coda that injects an even greater sense of mystic release into an already otherworldly set.