At first blush, Papa M’s Highway Songs LP is a mess or, at best perhaps, unbalanced. But first blushes, like a journalist’s first drafts of history, are frequently pockmarked with misconceptions and quotes demanding corrections.
Many watched as Papa M’s sole member and primary muse, the Slint and Tortoise alum David Pajo, struggled with god knows what personal issues and demons in recent years. And, yes, there was a very visible suicide attempt and a very shaky motorcycle accident . It’s not easy to document or hold your glare on the subject for too long but all of it is absolutely essential for understanding Highway Songs, a kind of after-the-fact-thought of a record that embellishes its uneven surfaces.
What the hell do I mean?
Well, the record starts in Dead Child territory with the throbbing metal of “Flatliners,” includes a glitchy, vaguely Autechre-ian soundscape dubbed “The Love Particle” and closes with the resolved acoustics, roaring guitar solos and really smoke-damaged vocals of “Little Girl.” In between there are no further clues as to what’s on Pajo’s mind stylistically (the record is also almost entirely instrumental) and that seems to be precisely the point. We get the murmuring ambient drone of “Coda,” the somber “Divd,” the 80s hair-metal homage “Green Holler” and the venomous “Bloom,” and “Walking on Coronado,” which, at times, feels like Drag City Records demanded a single that sounded anything like previous Papa M outings and Pajo obliged. (Only the eerie closing half of “Adore, A Jar” seems to hint at the slinkishness of Papa M’s previous outings like the acclaimed Live From A Shark Cage.)
But such might be the point. Pajo, no stranger to the indie limelight, might be playing on people’s expectations for the “desperate cry for help” LP, treating them to a dark but consciously deconstructed sour little pill of a record. The fact that he chose the Papa M moniker, instead of going with PAJO as he has in “recent” years, is only further proof that he wants this awkward but somehow enrapturing little sentiment to hold its glare. This is not meant to be an easy listen.
So be it.
But does that make for a satisfying record? Well, yes and no. Conceptually, you feel at Pajo’s mercy and get the sense he has a few winners up his sleeve. But you won’t leave the record humming choruses. That’s never really been Pajo’s modus operandi (he even took aim at it with the pointedly titled Papa M Sings EP) but it’s a terrain in which he’s done quite well. Whatever, Mortal and the tour diary EPs of the early- to mid-00s were gems of songwriting and production, as much as constructed sentiment. Pajo might be onto something with Highway Songs but not many will end the record glowing the way they did with previous outings. And, ultimately, unfortunately, sentiments of construction aside, that says an awful lot.