Tooth & Nail / 2016
From Sonic Youth to the Beach Boys, the Pacific Coast Highway has inspired a lot of music over the years. But Tyson Motsenbocker's Letters to Lost Loves might be the first one inspired by someone hoofing it on the iconic freeway. Motsenbocker's mother died of cancer in 2013, and four days later, on a grand whim, he struck out to traverse all 600 miles between San Diego and San Francisco on foot. With only one change of clothes and hardly any preparation, the trek ended up being way more arduous than he'd anticipated, but the journey, and the process of grieving and introspection that attended it, formed the foundation for his debut full-length.
Motsenbocker did a lot of praying while he was walking, but on the album's lovely first track, "In Your Name", its effectiveness is an open question - when he asks for wholeness in his mother's frail body, his father says, "Son, I don't think Jesus is in business of healing any more". Over warm acoustic guitar and gently stirring strings, Motsenbocker runs down the list of things the Heavenly Father commonly gets credit for - chief strategist of the culture war, speaking through wacko TV preachers, and helping basketball teams with their free throws - then holds them up next to his mother's five-year struggle with cancer and his own unanswered pleas for her recovery. It's a lovely song, reminiscent of one of the Avett Brothers' heartstring-tuggers, and it reaches a climax when he puts plainly his frustration with God's seemingly selective hearing: "When my mother's doctor calls again with more bad news/It's an honest heart's reaction — oh, who, my God, have you been listening to?"
Motsenbocker's anguish at his mother's passing is in sharp relief to the apparent joy she possessed - on the easygoing jam "Honest", he describes her peace in the face of death, "as if the early passing was a door that she could look through with a smile". And on the same track, his quest for internal transformation via a hike on the highway somehow comes up short. When he finally glimpses San Francisco after 40 days on the road, he discovers "I was only standing closer to the man I hoped to lose along the way".
Letters to Lost Loves isn't always so poignant - "House in the Hills", a ballad about a woman robbed of her husband and twelve sons by war, is sketched broadly and lacks the detail needed to bring such tragic stories to life. On top of that, Lost Loves has the usual marks of a debut record; "I Can't Go Home Again" and "Evangeline" are pleasant, but they follow a worn and flavorless folk-rock template, and Motsenbocker doesn't do much vocally to make them pop.
That couldn't be less true of "I Still Have to Go", a terrific, banjo-backed stomper where the guitars and percussion tumble nimbly over each other, accumulating force as Motsenbocker affirms both the futility and necessity of his pedestrian sojourn: "And I know I can’t find/The things for which I’m searching/In the places that I’m looking/But I still have to go". It's a sentiment that could apply to the unreasonable cycle of grief, as well - there might not be any immediate comfort to be found when we mourn, but we still have to go.