It’s been five years since Phosporescent’s last album, Muchacho. That album found an artist exploring the end of a relationship, caused in part by constant touring. It was the music of a man at the end of a period in his life.
The subsequent five years have been busy for Houek. During the recording of Muchacho, he met Australian musician Jo Schornikow, who subsequently joined the band, they married, had two children and left New York for Nashville. Houek says of his departure from New York “If you’re not actively seeing shows or going to museums or being part of the vibrant city, what are you doing there?” In Nashville, Hoeuk’s been raising children and building a new studio. It’s the beginning of the new life marked as finished in Muchacho.
C’est La Vie No. 2, the final track written on the album sets its tone. A simple series of romantic, overblown statements are shot down in turn as he sets out his new life. “I wrote all night / Like the fire of my words could burn a hole up to heaven / I don’t write all night burning holes up to heaven no more.” It’s the sound of a man grappling with a new life – grappling, as well, with his image of himself as a romantic hero. There’s even a reluctance in the acceptance – it’s not his: ‘C’est la vie she say / but I don’t know what she means’. This acceptance is something he wrestles with as the album progresses.
However, a lighter view of his new found responsibilities is found on the first single from the album, New Birth In New England. It’s an upbeat pop song that makes the refrain ‘honey, don’t I know ya?’ refer first to meeting a soul mate, then the birth of a first child. It’s a more positive view of a middle-aged man getting to grips with new, profound and beautiful, responsibilities (he even find a moment for a War On Drugs-esque ‘Woo!’). In this song, it’s not a reluctant acceptance of this new world – he is experiencing a ‘new birth’ as much as his child.
In Nashville, Houek’s been working on creating a new studio, called Spirit Sounds. He seems to have some fun on the two tracks opening and closing the album putting that studio through its paces. Black Moon / Silver Waves and the longer Black Waves / Silver Moon are both haunting layered compositions that set the audio tone as much as the two singles set the topic.
Around The Horn takes that tone and drags it very close to Spiritualized. Indeed, this song almost sounds more like classic Spiritualized than anything on Spiritualized’s own album this year. Keeping with the protagonist’s journey, though, he opens with “Anything is fine once you make it fine.” Unlike the broken romantic of C’est La Vie, this is almost pragmatic.
Despite Christmas Down Under’s title and references to Jesus, it’s the least Christmassy song I’ve heard in some time. Perhaps that’s appropriate for a song reflecting on Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere, but it fits beautifully with the next track, My Beautiful Boy – a love song written to his sleeping son, who, following the Christmas references, becomes like the sleeping infant Jesus: ‘Just what in heaven would I do? / Just walk around and look for you.’
These Rocks closes the lyrical songs on the album. It’s a dark, but hopeful track – the rocks being what he’s been ‘carrying around all my days’ but he ‘wouldn’t have any other way’. However, in keeping with the album, in the second verse, he’s considering ‘putting all that stuff away’. Like a reflection of C’est La Vie No. 2, the past he’s leaving behind he realises is weighing him down.
C’est La Vie is a beautiful album that avoids the schmaltz of a new parent, by giving a meditation on middle age, and becoming an adult. As in the song There From Here (If you’d have seen me last year, I’d have said / I can’t even see you there from here), it’s an album that understands Kierkegaard when he wrote “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”