From the DiS archive... republished because Jason Molina sadly died at the weekend...
There’s only one mystery when it comes to music that speaks to the depths of your soul. It’s not the way that particular songs can make you feel that they must always have existed, although you’ve never heard them before; perhaps because they touch a part of you that was slowly, secretly, growing, but had never seen the light of day ('Yesterday' being the most famous example, though you’ll have a dozen of your own, I’m sure; 'Nobody' by Shearwater gets me this way). There’s no real mystery, either, to those eerie sounds that appear – played by no-one – when electric guitars are pushed to their limits... or any number of other sonic phenomena and their attenuated neurological effects. No, the mystery is that songwriters – and poets, artists, novelists, whoever – can go ‘through the black’ for as long as they do, and come back with a set of reasons, and fill you with a sense of life-as-struggle-that’s-somehow-ennobling rather than life-as-imprisonment-by-routine... and that they do so in spite of any past betrayal, injustice, abandonment, or just the terrible inside-the-bell-jar feeling of eternal apartness from people they might find it hard to believe could share this and survive. On record, playing live, and in person, Jason Molina has a rare generosity of spirit, and it gave me pause for thought – a few days after the recent death of David Foster Wallace – that the late author would have been one of the few other artists I might have compared to Molina, for his commitment to recovering a sense of spirituality at the turn of the 21st century, whilst exploring the formal possibilities of his art at a prodigious rate.
If you’ve come in recently, since the Magnolia Electric Co. and Pyramid Electric Co. records revisited the grey industrial town of Jason’s youth, and the sound made a detour into working men’s blues, then you might not be acquainted with his long-standing use of an improvized mythology that’s part pagan, part Christian, all Visionary. Paradoxically, those earlier records ( Axxess & Ace, The Lioness, Ghost Tropic) managed to sum up the reality behind the contemporary American dream, precisely because they’re reaching back towards an always elusive fantasy of the Native and the European past. If you’ve ever seen Songs: Ohia live, you’ll know there’s time to anticipate every note in your head, and savour it when it’s struck, or strummed, and sung; time enough to realize that everything’s deliberate, every line is crafted with care. Every slight change in delivery, too, reminds us the songs are living things, and every change in the words (a He to a She, say) is a matter of including someone else in these archetypal narratives.
1996 – 1999
With hindsight, the early records made under the name Songs: Ohia were Jason Molina’s attempts to find a voice, literally and figuratively. The debut, Songs: Ohia (1996), introduced a ragged ensemble, detailing the thin-voiced singer’s stories of bygone eras, with woodwind and banjos. The next handful of releases, however, established Songs: Ohia as a vehicle for open-ended collaborations – where possible – and for the outpourings of a songwriter with a work-rate that wouldn’t always let others keep up. An EP (or mini-album?), Hecla & Griper (1997), sounded like a collection of offcuts, and the second album, Impala (1998), was similarly sketchy, although the addition of an electric organ broadened the palette a little. Where the debut had depicted soldiers and sailors – figures with whom Molina could identify, on the road, and far from home – the second was built around the extended metaphor of gambling. The first track puts the singer in an ambiguous position, though, because (in some inversion of Bergman’s scenario of gambling with Death), the fellow gambler in the first song wears "a crown of thorns."
"Tonight I am gambling / With my sentiment / Tonight I am gambling / With my repentance / Tonight I am losin’ / In a... crow-ded room / To a gambler / In a... crown of thorns / Tonight I am down to my soul / Tonight I am down to my soul / Tonight I am DOWN to my soul / Tonight I am down to my..."
'An Ace Unable to Change' is one of the first of the early songs to truly convince as a metaphysical confrontation, a dark-night-of-the-soul in 7 minutes, and thankfully Molina would revisit the style and atmosphere a number of times over subsequent albums. The remainder of Impala is not so fully-realized, and alt. country aficionados might speculate that the album was a hasty attempt to move-in on the territory of Will Oldham, who had shifted to organs and drum machines on Arise Therefore (1996), as well as inserting a crude painting of a palm-tree & desert-island in vinyl versions of Viva Last Blues (1995) – almost identical to the one on the cover of Impala. Palace Music’s 1995 album pretty much provided the musical template for Songs: Ohia and many of the songs on Impala – there’s the same rough-edged or archaic sound to the acoustic instruments recorded live, and the same weariness in the playing and vocal delivery... with occasional bursts of defiance, or unexpected moments of melodic sweetness that underscore some lyrical insight. Molina doesn’t pull it off quite as successfully though, meaning that the songs blur into one another, and very few have the strong hook that Oldham slips into almost every song, at some point, however dragging or monotonous its verses may have been. Nonetheless, of all Oldham’s apprentices and sound-alikes (e.g. Timesbold, early Shearwater, pre-Stages Names Okkervil River, the UK’s Lionshare), Molina has the most distinctive lyrical preoccupations, and the same "drive to live – I won’t let go!" that Oldham proclaimed in the title-track from his contemporaneous masterpiece, I See a Darkness (1998).
With his third album, Axxess & Ace (1999), Molina became simultaneously more personal in his lyrics, while the full-band arrangements became less claustrophobic. We were never in any doubt that all the symbolic figures from earlier releases had been invested with Molina’s most heartfelt sentiments, but here the subject was Love and its absence; as such, the songs’ characters were mostly ‘You’ and ‘I’. Marking this new mood, the opening track – 'Hot Black Silk' – is just plain sexy. Molina’s still yelping, but there’s real lust here. At the centre of the album, 'Captain Badass' revisits the martial drumming & Civil War theme of earlier songs, but with the first real groove to appear on a Songs:Ohia record. Towards the end, 'Redhead' echoes 'An Ace Unable to Change' (from Impala), and although the addressee is (I think...) Molina’s future wife (...given his response to an audience-member, a while back), she cuts as mysterious a figure as Christ-the-gambler.
Video: Songs: Ohia, 'The Lioness'
1999 – 2001
The addition of Edith Frost to the line-up for Axxess & Ace suggested that Molina was making his mark on the indie scene, and its follow-up – The Lioness (1999) – saw him attracting international collaborators. Although they may strike those-but-casually-acquainted as comical and irreverent, Arab Strap proved an ideal pairing for Molina, with their pared down song-writing, Joy Division-like synths and ability to make a drunken confession sound gripping. (One for the trivia-fans: Molina told me in an informal interview that they used Mogwai’s equipment without telling them.) Re-shuffling a handful of symbols (in the lyrics) and different combinations of the same 5 chords (2 or 3 per song), the album has a conceptual and sonic unity that goes a long way to explaining its greatness: The Lioness isn’t a collection of songs, it’s a state of mind, or a state of the soul. For the first time, almost every line is delivered clearly, and every chord underlines it as a revelation (where the tired strumming had merely provided background colour in many songs from Impala). The desert scenery of opening track 'The Black Crow' etches itself on the mind, whereas images from earlier songs had flickered past, like illustrations on pages in a book you’re skimming. The pulsing synths that rise up at the climax, after six minutes, could be the beating of gigantic wings. At the other end of the spectrum, is Molina’s astonishing declaration on Track 5:
"Being in love / Means you are completely bro-ken / Then put back to-gether / Thee one piece which was yours / Is beating in your lover’s chest / She says the same thing a-bout hers"
As a literal statement it’s powerful enough, but as a song it’s shot through with nuances: the pause after "...you are completely bro-ken" means that it stands as a statement in its own right (i.e. being in love is initially – and perhaps always partly – being broken). The pay-off comes in the next line – "then [you’re] put back to-gether" – but that doesn’t mean the previous lines haven’t been registered, and their formidable truth taken on board. Make what you will of the rest of the song ("we are proof / that the heart / is a risky fuel to burn"). It’s a subtle twist on the clichéd trope that love (and/or lust) is like being on fire, reminding us that (maybe) the trope has stuck around because of the duality of the symbol (fire ~ heat AND destruction).
In spite of having players in common, the formal leap from The Lioness (1999) to Ghost Tropic (2000) is one of those extraordinary feats of genius, matched only by Unknown Pleasures (1979) to Closer (1980), The Colour of Spring (1986) to Spirit of Eden (1988), or Young Team (1997) to Come on Die Young (1999). Like all of those, Ghost Tropic is an experience rather than a collection of songs – a state of the soul rarely visited. I’ve often quoted Leonard Cohen’s 'Famous Blue Raincoat' (1968) to explain just how devastating the lyrics are. There, Cohen wrote:
"And Jane came by with a lock of your hair / She said that you gave it to her / That night that you planned to go clear / Well, did you ever go clear? / I heard that you’re building / Your little house deep in the desert / You’re living for nothing now / I hope you’re keeping some kind of record"
Put it this way: Ghost Tropic is that record – the record of ‘living for nothing’ that even Cohen could only bring himself to suggest through one of his greatest songs. Arguably, though, it’s a powerful gesture of solidarity with the lost, and like Closer ( “here are the young men / the weight on their shoul-ders...” ) redemptive even at its most daunting – the weight is almost unbearable, but the weight is a responsibility to make your own meaning in a godless universe, not the pressure of a malevolent world bent on your destruction. Sonically, yes, this is a lot like Side 2 of Closer...but I mentioned Talk Talk for a reason – the instrumentals feature electronica simulating birdsong, hovering on the brink of prettiness, like a glimpse of possibility that the world might be bearable.
Video: Songs: Ohia, 'Chicago Blue Moon'
With Didn’t It Rain (2002), Molina claimed to have finally realized his musical ambitions. What sets apart the seventh Songs: Ohia album may not be immediately evident, given the stunning achievements of its predecessors. The last few albums, The Lioness, Ghost Tropic, and the live album Mi Sei Apparso come un Fantasmo / You Came to Me as a Ghost (2001) had all been impeccable. Molina’s song-writing had evolved to a point where simplicity and melodic strength provided a backbone for collaborative experiments that surpassed anything the players had done before, whether in Arab Strap, Appendix Out, or numerous others. To these ears, The Lioness sounds like the last word on Men & Women – an album to rank alongside Afghan Whigs’ Gentlemen (1993) – whilst Ghost Tropic gave solitude and despair a sound, with no companion. Next up, Mi Sei Apparso... (or at least the four long untitled songs written especially for the show) could have been Molina’s attempt to write the Great American Road Album; thematically, the highly condensed song-cycle of Untitled / Unreleased songs combined the preoccupations of the previous two albums by depicting the piquant solitude you can feel even with a travelling companion: setting out to be alone-together in the American wilderness, and discovering that in this life the best you can be is together-alone. In a couple of informal conversations with Molina, this year & last, he was pleased to hear the slowcore sound of the record compared to Codeine, but also suggested Come as another reference point.
So what was it that made Didn’t It Rain the masterpiece? Possibly, Molina felt that his backing band, the Pinetop Seven, connected him to a deeper musical past. The synths and distorted guitars of the previous records had been replaced by organs and cellos. Perhaps it’s the texture of Jennie Benford’s voice, complementing his own, and dispelling any sense of the records as overly personal expressions: that he could now claim to be writing for all the dispossessed of America by bringing in a female voice. I’d argue it’s the mythic narrative, intersecting with the present that makes Didn’t It Rain so powerful. For all the dream images carried over from The Lioness (men and women as animals; or visions of the same, as omens or spirit-guides), and for all the shades inhabiting Ghost Tropic (by virtue of never inhabiting the places they pass through), this new album presented a world more like your own, and in doing-so offered more hope of re-connecting to it. Dead centre in the album, at the beginning of “Cross the Road, Molina”, the singer encounters a ‘wolf-headed conjuror / in the cross-roads’ but he makes it across, nonetheless. In fact, the album’s centre-piece is a pair of songs (12 minutes in total), each with the same two-chords, but a different tempo, and a cello part that’s like a ship creaking and swaying in a storm. The closing track, 'Blue Chicago Moon' – again, 7 minutes – is the perfect distillation of all the wisdom and empathy and heartbreak... but also solace that’s gone before, and casts Molina as Orpheus / Odysseus descending into Hades, or Vergil to the listener’s Dante. "If the Blues are your hunter / You will come face-to-face / with that darkness... and desolation / and the endless, endless depression". As Jennie sings the final notes back and forth, in wordless consolation to those left at the wake, the last words of the album ("space’s loneliness...") don’t seem quite as bleak, and just maybe hint that we’re all on our backs in the gutter, but some of us are staring at the stars. After all, there’s some humour on the album, too, and a place for simple pleasures alongside the epic struggle:
"When I die Don’t bury my bones / Leave them at the side of the road / Bring the Cleveland game a / Coleman lantern / and two fishing-poles"
Musical fulfilment aside, the end of Songs: Ohia coincided with the beginning of the War on Terror / War for Oil. The two days to either side of September 11th 2001, Jason Molina spent with Will Oldham and Alasdair Roberts recording as The Amalgamated Sons of Rest. With its cover image of a whale being harpooned, and rear image of three mourners (who themselves appear un-dead) standing over the glass coffin of a princess, the album invokes the peaks of 19th century American literature: Melville’s Moby Dick and the stories of Edgar Allen Poe (perhaps 'Ulalume' or maybe 'Berenice'). Clearly they felt it was too early to respond any other way than by Doing What We Do Everyday and Fuck the Terrorists! – like so many American citizens and artists at the time; Oldham’s second song (credited to Owen Hand) manages to be sad and sperm-drenched all at once (yes, the narrator is a whaler’s wife), while Molina gives a solo-version of the Didn’t It Rain-sound on 'Jennie Blackbird’s Blues', and then all three join in for a gleeful chant on the flipside. Whether Molina felt the weight of American cultural history on his shoulders – that he, and Oldham, and Roberts were part of a sacred lineage, being the foremost folk singers of the day – it would soon become apparent that he felt the weight of America’s neo-imperialist legacy. The sleevenotes to Magnolia Electric Co. (2003) – the last album under the Songs: Ohia imprimatur – make it clear to everyone what they’re talking about, but can’t bring themselves to actually name the victims or the perpetrators: "...it’s a dark time..."
Video: Songs: Ohia, 'Hold On Magnolia' (Live)
Discreetly, the lyrics of Magnolia Electric Co. don’t seem to be about geo-politics at all. There’s no condemnation of Neo-Conservative war-mongering, nor Islamic extremists; there isn’t any symbolic attempt at reconciliation as there had been on Bruce Springsteen’s contemporaneous The Rising (2002), with its foray into Arabic muezzin singing. Instead, Molina turns to Jesus – not for hope, or moral authority – but because in trying to imagine Him, to put a human face on ‘Heaven’ (as he phrases it), the high price and high responsibility for the individual in these times can be established. This mythic sensibility isn’t a flight from history though (as High Modernist re-appropriations of myth between the world wars have sometimes been theorized), but a re-engagement with society. Just who are you betraying when you betray your brother... and whose example are you following when you help him? It makes more sense to discuss the album’s straight-up country-rock with the Magnolia Electric Co. records [COMING SOON], but slip in that closing track 'Hold on Magnolia' was yet another surprise when you thought Molina had written the song that could never be bettered.
Hold on Magnolia to that great highway moon / No one has to be that strong / But if you’re stubborn like me / I know what you’re trying to be / Hold on Magnolia I hear that station bell ring / You might be holding the last light I see / Before the dark finally gets a hold of me / Hold on Magnolia, I know what a true friend you've been / In my life I have had my doubts / But tonight I think I’ve worked it out with all of them / Hold on Magnolia to the thunder and the rain / To the lightning that has just signed my name / to the bottom line / Hold on Magnolia, I hear that lonesome whistle whi--ne / Hold on Magnolia I think its almost time"
Recorded at the same time, Pyramid Electric Co. (2004) was the first solo album released under Molina’s own name, but it’s more powerful, if anything; the feeling wrung out of every chiming, heavily reverbed note. Musically, it’s sparser than anything so far released, and many of the “characters” (e.g. 'Division Street Girl') are street-walkers selling cold love by the quarter-hour, but as Molina explains, the title-track was a deliberate attempt to find an unusual image for a family unit. The pyramids, anthropomorphized, are also monuments enduring even after all the other wonders of the ancient world have crumbled; qualities that he no doubt wants to confer on the family as an ideal. The album opens:
When the Great Pyr-a-mids Dragged themselves out to this spot Sickness sank into the little ones heart Mama said, “Now Son, that’s just the cold that’s just the emptiness that’s bein’ alone in the dark You’ll get used to it We all get used to it You’ll have friends who don’t come home You’ll see their bones not sep’rate yet from death You’ll get used to it
As on Didn’t It Rain, Pyramid Electric Co. ends with a You-song, consoling a friend, or perhaps a lover, but the difference this time is that the pseudo-lyric mode took on epic proportions when it became apparent that no-one could face that much misfortune: that the person addressed is Everyone (woman or man), such are their sorrows and sins. "You said you’d never be / young enough / or old enough / or pretty e-nough / or tall enough / or thin enough / strong e-nough / brave enough / smart enough / Good e-nough... / ...You were, to us." The song is, in many ways, the culmination of years of writing – a seven minute epistle to the entire human race – and finally left Molina with the task of turning to his own family past, and more specifically, to his father. At last, Magnolia Electric Co. – the players already assembled, and the name already known to Molina aficionados, could take the stage.
Discography: Jason Molina/Songs:Ohia (albums, EPs, selected singles)
Nor Cease Thou Never Now 7" (1996) - the debut, on Will Oldham's label; picked up by John Peel
Songs: Ohia 'Untitled' (1997) [7/10]
Hecla & Griper' EP (1998) [5/10]
Impala (1998) [6/10]
Axxess & Ace (1999) [8/10]
The Lioness (1999) [9/10]
The Ghost (????) - limited edition, tour-only album
Protection Spells (????) - limited edition, tour-only album [7/10]
Ghost Tropic (2000) [10/10]
The Lioness/Scoutt Niblett 'I Miss My Lion' split 7" (2001)
Live: Mi Sei Apparso Come un Fantasmo (2001) [9/10]
Black Link to Fire Link/The Grey Tower 7” (2002)
Didn’t it Rain (2002) [10/10]
ASOR - Amalgamated Sons of Rest (2002) [8/10]
SONGS:OHIA - Magnolia Electric Co. (2003) [8/10]
JASON MOLINA - Farewell Transmissions (2003) - acoustic demos of the above, and more [7/10]
NB – the Magnolia Electric Co. live album Trials & Errors (2004) features songs from Didn't It Rain (2002), but will be considered in a follow-up feature on MECo, at a later date.