, November 16th, 2016 09:23
Before screeching into focus with a flurry of feedback on instant doom metal curveball 'Flatliners', the cover artwork for Highway Songs by David Pajo AKA Papa M offers stark subtext of the virtue of hard-won atonement. Framed by a near fatal suicide attempt in February last year and a serious bike accident in L.A. back in April, it presents less the idea of "light at the end of the tunnel" than it does an abyss slain by that forever unknowable defiant inner source that usually can only pinpoint the light switch when its back is firmly against the wall. In the much-admired case of Pajo, if the "highway" in question here winds through his recent past, this new album - the Slint guitarist's first solo effort in over seven years and his first original album as Papa M since 2001's Whatever Mortal - serves as a madly assembled journal tracing the quite literal journey he has had to take in order to talk, walk and live once again.
Whilst his labyrinthine career both stems from and has often veered into darker pockets and weightier territories, Pajo’s work as Papa M has always been an outlet for more delicate lo-fi ruminations. From minimalist folk odes to heartsick instrumentalism in the vein of Ry Cooder, the moniker (kickstarted in 1999 with the fifth installment of Temporary Residence EP series Travel in Constants) has offered several nigh on voyeuristic propositions for the listener over the years, none more vital than the nine tracks that comprise Highway Songs. But on this outing, quietude – and the desire for easily digestible cohesion – has been set to one side in favour of forging a genre-warping, twenty-eight-minute purge that puts catharsis and the mere act of being a musician firmly centre-stage. For an artist who told this writer he "rarely touched a guitar" a month following his suicide attempt early last year, Highway Songs sees Pajo proudly – and often quite brilliantly – raise a middle finger to the forces that all but conspired to reduce him to an ex-musician.
And nowhere is that middle digit more perpendicular than on 'Flatliners', an opening masterstroke that immediately confirms that shit has well and truly been changed. Forging a Eyehategod-esque sludge blitz with a crawling prog-doom passage harking back to Red-era King Crimson, it expires with a perfectly shrill pinch harmonic tipping its evil hat to early Slint. As it segues into 'The Love Particle' – a glitchy burst of break-beat electronica and sampled vocals featuring Pajo’s daughter – it’s clear that linearity is not a huge priority here. In fact, with ‘Coda’ offering some ambient respite and 'Adore, A Jar' weaving homespun beats with guitar arpeggios treading a thin line between malevolent and maudlin (a classic Papa M amalgam of yore), Pajo presents a release that is almost compilation-like in its fluctuating temper and tone. But bearing in mind the naturally episodic nature of his return to creation, the variation on offer slowly starts to feel less of a distraction and more of a showpiece.
Where the hopeful and wonderfully-crafted guitar shapes of 'Dlvd' and lead single 'Walking on Coronado' conjure the friendly ghost of much less tempestuous times – proving, no less, the album’s sweetest peaks – there’s something fundamentally critical about ‘Green Holler’ and ‘Bloom’, a twain of wonderfully no-fucks-given metal throwdowns evoking Pajo’s work with Louisville heavy metal supergroup-of-sorts, Dead Child. A one-legged, one-man-band with nothing to prove to anyone – an artist that has traversed countless realms of deeply songwriting for over 30 years – Pajo cuts loose here with the pure (and purely legitimate) desire to rock out. While some might well listen on with a curious ear, quietly questioning the almost crude and, at first, seemingly purposeless scuzz of these two tracks, they – along with ‘Flatliners’ at the very beginning – serve to offer a vehement, fist-clenched inverse of the inner realm that houses the worries, loves, glories and losses that merged to birth the likes of ‘High Lonesome Moan’, ‘Washer’, ‘Arundel’ and many more besides.
With Highway Songs petering out with the album’s only non-instrumental track, ‘Little Girl’ – a sentimental, guitar-solo heavy ode to recovery, his children and the brightening of his own dark night of the soul – it would perhaps be a feat of the imagination to consider this Pajo’s finest work to date; something that he himself is likely to admit, if not now then with the luxury of hindsight. But rather than waiting years to consign his recent experiences to a document that would lack the immediacy, intimacy and – yes – blatant irregularity of this “story told in fragments”, Pajo achieves just that by putting enjoyment and carefree experimentation first. For an artist who hasn’t as much been through the mill than one that has been given the full tour on a few occasions, Highway Songs is David Pajo’s protracted gasp for breath, his slammed fist on the table and his most resounding act of defiance. As we await certain brilliance, it will serve as a very fitting departure in the meantime.