PHOSPHORESCENT And sort of in focus.

MATTHEW HOUCK isn't sad. But his music is. For years the troubadour has spun his late-night yarns through a ghostly croon, and to great effect. There's no reason to think Houck is in a good way.

Although he didn't go into detail, Houck says he actually did hit a rough patch prior to the recording of his latest, and best, album, Muchacho. He'd written skeletons of some songs before retreating to Tulum, Mexico, a place Houck describes as "this little area where people checked out of society for a while." Which is exactly what he did.

"I had started writing songs," he says. "But I didn't know if there was even going to be another record."

During his week in Tulum, Houck was able to collect his thoughts and finish writing. But the material that makes up Muchacho isn't necessarily centered on that period in his life. In fact, the themes that run through the record—loneliness, regret, redemption—are more character studies... with maybe a little bit of truth sprinkled in the details. Houck is actually a pretty happy guy who just happens to write sad songs. "I want to create a degree of separation between art and myself," he says. "That's why it's called Phosphorescent and not Matthew Houck."

More than anything, Muchacho is gorgeous. It's the most fully fleshed-out record of his career. Country ballads are colored in with gentle electronic flourishes, and Houck's vocals are vulnerable and wonderfully layered, most notably on "Sun, Arise!"

Houck—who records the majority of Phosphorescent material himself—says he spent more time on Muchacho than any other album, bringing in players to lay down strings, horns, and pedal steel over the course of six months. But the key was having time prior to that to explore the record's celestial sounds.

And it sounds like that's going to carry over to the live set. Houck says he couldn't be happier with the band. And he's happier on the road, something that hasn't always lent itself to a healthy lifestyle. "I'm trying to learn how to be sustainable," Houck says, adding, "and learn how to do this thing in a way that won't kill me."