J Kutchma doesn't make albums. He makes installation pieces -- multi-media experiments. Blue Highways explores new space in so many ways. As a middle finger to our Spotify playlist culture, Kutchma made Blue Highways a single, 39:39 track. (This isn't a coincidence -- the last song cuts out abruptly.) If you want to support an artist, pay for the whole album, dammit. And if you're an artist, make an album, dammit -- not a few good songs and a bunch of filler. Kutchma makes it worth your while -- each of the nine tracks hit it out of the park.
As the name (borrowed from an excellent road trip memoir written by William Least Heat Moon) this album is about the liminal space of a journey: you have time to think and reflect, even though you're constantly on the move. It's fitting, then, that the album picks us up at the dawn of an auspicious day -- graduation -- and drops us off at night and, possibly, the end of the narrator's life. The album itself was recorded between sunset and sunrise. The first track embodies these feelings: you can hear the sunrise. Kutchma wanted his band as little-rehearsed as possible. It shows how much trust they put in him -- you'd never be able to tell that they had never played together.
If you like song titles and lyrics, it's worth kicking in the extra $13 for the book and accompanying movie. You don't need either of these things to appreciate the sadness, confusion, boldness, and courage in Kutchma's voice. But it helps you appreciate how difficult the life of a touring musician is and the exhilaration that comes with it. The movie is comprised of an intriguing array of found footage from the '70s. It's an interesting portal to the past, when people were actually private and visibly uncomfortable around some weirdo tourist running around with an 8 mm. (I'll never understand people who record their vacations on their phones and GoPros. Are you ever going to watch it again?)
While some of the clips clearly illustrate the songs, others are more subtle. My favorite was the juxtaposition of "Durham Bull" -- which has lines like "What am I becoming?/ Who the hell am I again? ... "I'm not yet what I'm meant to be"For me it helped to have the book open -- with some kind of anniversary parade in Detroit. While the song by itself could be interpreted as a personal struggle, the video slyly hints at a more political meaning.
Blue Highways would be required listening on its own. Drummer Evan Rowe describes it as "where Elvis might have headed if he'd just kept on with the gospel stuff" and he's on the nose. But Kutchma's experimentation has resulted in something even bigger and more rewarding than the album itself.
J Kutchma -- Official, Facebook, Bandcamp