Papa M – Highway Songs

Album Review by Will Fitzpatrick | 02 Nov 2016
  • Papa M – Highway Songs
Album title: Highway Songs
Artist: Papa M
Label: Drag City
Release date: 11 Nov

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. Even in the light of his own redoubtable career, that's not bad going. Last year, however, things took a horrifying turn.

On 12 February Pajo posted a lengthy and harrowing suicide note on his blog, opening with the phrase "this is where my story ends." Alerted by fans who read the post, emergency services were fortunately able to intervene, and in the months that followed he began to put his life back together. He opened up about his depression and the sincerity of his attempt to take his own life ("Help was the last thing I wanted," he told The Thin Air. "I didn’t intend to be around for the aftermath"), and began responding personally to fans' stories of their own similar experiences. He began to make music again. Crucially, he realised he wanted to be alive.

So there's your context. It's not a great leap to equate that title with his own lonely journey, from the depths of despair to his current position (finally playing guitar just for himself, after a lengthy break), and that's borne out by the music itself. Opener Flatliners is a crushing, sludged-out cry unto the void, easily the heaviest piece of music Pajo has recorded since his stint with stoner metal throwback quartet Dead Child. Its brutal riff serves as a sonic cudgel, beating the listener to the point of numbness before grinding to a hault with a screeching howl of harmonics and feedback. Unlike anything that's previously appeared on a Papa M record, its bleakness becomes more notable with each repeat play.

It's followed by The Love Particle, where (what sounds like) sampled strings build gently before swiftly disintegrating into a series of glitches and frantic static; rhythm and texture repeatedly punctured by chaos. At the centre of the piece, the maelstrom pauses briefly for a child's voice to whisper, 'I love you, Daddy.' It's a rare moment of poignancy amidst a head-clattering three minutes.

Highway Songs isn't exclusively a dark night of the soul, however. DLVD provides a tentative flash of optimism; fragile and hesitant but also the first time the album really turns its gaze towards the sky. Walking on Coronado, meanwhile, is a shot of sunlight injected straight in the heart; the moment where a happy ending is finally presented as a genuine possibility. It's still surrounded by dark clouds and turbulence – after all, this is life rather than fiction – but it's surprisingly affecting; a sweetly melodic guitar instrumental that's worlds away from the sometimes fraught, sometimes blank cerebra of his signature work with Slint or Tortoise – or even on earlier Papa M records Live From a Shark Cage and Whatever, Mortal.

At nine tracks and 27 minutes long, Highway Songs isn't the longest of albums, an element that's perhaps suggestive of the brief period documented by these songs. The best is saved for last, though, as Pajo's true shot at self-redemption makes for a stunning close: Little Girl is the only non-instrumental track on the album, a country ballad decked out with his familiar, gravelly murmur and a plea for his daughter to "teach me to love again." In lesser hands it could feel mawkish. Here, with the guitarist solo-ing flashily and emotively like Slash at the cliff's edge, it's the only way the record could possibly end; it feels heroic, but only because it feels so warmly human. He's broken but determined to repair, and if that realisation doesn't make you shed at least a tiny tear then maybe it's time you booked yourself in for that Voigt-Kampff test.

In April this year David Pajo survived a second brush with the Grim Reaper after a motorcycle accident, which nearly saw him lose a leg and resulted in what the press release describes as a "Def Leppard-inspired one-legged drum technique" during the making of Highway Songs. So yeah, we're delighted that this superb album exists – but more importantly, we're sincerely grateful that the death-defying, awe-inspiring Papa M is still with us.

Listen to: Flatliners, Walking on Coronado, Little Girl