An exercise in instrumental simplicity.
Stacked up against its predecessors, the latest release from Slint’s David Pajo, Highway Songs, is a bold record. While opener “Flatliners” begins on a down-tuned doom metal riff, it’s followed by a wide range of styles which never seem to coalesce. “The Love Particle,” for instance, introduces us to an electronic glitch element with the intermittent sample of a child saying “I love you, Daddy.” It’s entirely possible that Pajo was reaching for Aphex Twin territory or possibly even a general sense of whimsy, but he achieves something closer to an unsettling interlude.
The shorter track “Adore, a Jar” contains significantly more guitar picking, while “DVLD” returns to the soft instrumentation that has become Papa M’s defining sound. But again, the track doesn’t quite approach song structure or melody, and feels like pre-session noodling. Is that the point? There is an expansive array of sounds which feels like an exercise in perhaps we can reach everyone!, an attempt to draw in folk fans, rock fans, jazz fans and people who simply didn’t know what they were getting into.
Singing has not been a strong point of Papa M’s prior albums, and on “Code” the closest we get to the human voice is a looping synth line. On the other hand, the easily accessible “Walking on Coronado” may be the catchiest track on the record, its acoustic strumming carrying on as if the album’s previous run of glitch and experimentation had never happened.
“Green Holler” reignites the opening track’s energy without taking it anywhere special, though it arguably feels better and more epic than the first metal-flavored track. It follows the path of a song that arrived through a process that we never get to see, as though there were some other album in which this is the grand crescendo but it somehow got misplaced here amid the other disparate artifacts of sound. It all leads into “Bloom,” a return to more sludge guitar metal that never quite resolves into a song structure with any depth. With a lack of coherent expression throughout the record, Highways Songs is an island of lost toys.
The album is an exercise in instrumental simplicity that erupts when the elements are all smashed together. It’s an interesting listen but not one that demands replay. Pajo clearly brings an energy to the table, and the glitch elements make for interesting listening, but it finally bears no fruit.
Out of nowhere, “Little Girl” closes Highway Songs with a track that should have opened the album. The refreshing duet shares a story with a happy ending — happiness that belies the casual nature of picking a winner with respect to musical genres. The first track on the album with universal appeal, it leverages some picked guitar for a running time of just over five minutes. It’s a great track to go out on, but is it too little too late?