Album Review of Highway Songs by Papa M.
Release Date: Nov 11, 2016
Record label: Drag City
Genre(s): Folk, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Lo-Fi, Indie Electronic, Post-Rock, Experimental Rock, Indie Folk, Slowcore
David Pajo's first album since his suicide attempt in 2015 assures it a high gravitas no matter the content. Yet even removed from context, the album is still one of the Slint founding member's finest to date—vignettes rife with silvery guitar slashes and skittish lightning bolt beats, suggesting an intersection of the incorporeal with a sly acknowledgement that we're ultimately strings of molecules, the cruelest of cosmic jokes. Yet when Pajo samples his child plaintively cooing, "I love you daddy" during "The Love Particle," anything remotely jocular goes out the window, as these songs are stripped to their essence—they're irresistibly elegiac spiritual balms.
As comebacks go, you can file this one under 'unexpected' – but also 'welcome' and 'a relief'. David Pajo's own work hasn't been seen since his under-the-radar Misfits covers album Scream With Me seven years ago, and indeed the last Papa M record was 2004's archive-clearing rarities compilation Hole of Burning Alms. Since then he's played as a touring member for The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol, and reunited once more with Slint, the seminal Kentucky band who provided a template for post-rock with second album Spiderland.
Pretty much every project David Pajo has participated in—the pioneering post-rock of Slint and Tortoise, his winding instrumentals and downbeat folk as Papa M and Pajo, the blunt heavy metal of Dead Child—has made a virtue of stylistic consistency. Once you’ve heard the few first notes of a Pajo album, you know what you’re in for, and that commitment to cohesion has always been a strength. All of which makes Highway Songs a risky record.
Given the severity of certain events in David Pajo’s life over the past couple of years, it is worth stating the obvious, that we’re fortunate to have Highway Songs at all. Considering the circumstances, it’s an unexpectedly easy going and unburdened record.There couldn’t be a much more appropriate title for this addition to the catalog of one of the most distinguished journeymen in post-rock. Highway Songs comes roughly 25 years after Slint’s Spiderland and 20 years after Tortoise’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die, two landmark albums that Pajo was central to.
Highway Songs is former Slint guitarist David Pajo's return to making music under the Papa M moniker since the mid-2000s. A lot has happened in his life since then. Slint went on multiple reunion tours, Pajo recorded three solo albums under his surname (including Misfits cover album Scream with Me), and he briefly joined the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol as a touring member.
It’s not, it’s safe to say, been the best of times for ex-Slint guitarist David Pajo recently. 2015’s marital breakdown and suicide attempt tragically played out online on his blog, while a motorcycle accident earlier this year, which resulted in the near amputation of his foot, was a horrific addition to a catalogue of misery. But to the joy of anyone who’s ever heard Slint, Aerial M, his endless collaborations (Interpol, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Tortoise etc) or the alt.pop of his mid-00s solo work, Pajo’s back.
It isn’t a huge leap into pop psychology to posit that the key song on former Slint guitarist David Pajo’s first album in seven years is the closing Little Girl. The only non-instrumental among these nine songs, it’s seemingly about his daughter and an uncharacteristically straightforward foray into gentle singer-songwriter territory. Significantly, with its beatific air and simple, unvarnished positivity (“teach me to laugh again”), it suggests the near-fatal bout of depression he suffered last year might be behind him – here’s hoping.
In his first solo release since 2009, David Pajo - aka Papa M - is finally getting back to work. Perhaps more significantly, this is his first output since his attempted suicide on Valentine's Day last year, so if nothing else, it is encouraging just to see the indie-rock virtuoso getting back to normal. Not that there's really much indication of Pajo's personal struggles here.
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.