In comparative terms, the last three years have been a long break for prolific singer-songwriter Jason Molina. 2007 was the first year in a decade – since his Songs: Ohia debut in 1997 – that saw no original Molina material. In 2008 he maintained his silence, apparently only finding the time to move from his Ohio homeland to London. As no review has failed to mention, though, the main event preceding this album’s release was the tragic death, in November 2007, of Molina’s longtime bassist and bandmate, Evan Farrell. Even without this context, Josephine is still clearly an album obsessed with life cycles – it’s nothing new for an artist to ruminate on a newly found sense of their own mortality in the wake of a death close-to-home. Written under the guise of a series of loveletters to the titular Josephine, a character who crops up on many of the album’s fourteen tracks, it’s easy to see “Josephine” as a shorthand for lost companions, lovers and friends the world over. Molina himself has tried to guide listeners away from this line of thought, as though the idea of an album as an epitaph would be seen in a negative light. But as D.H. Lawrence wisely advised us; “trust the tale and not the teller.” Well, this is a tale with death on every page, whether the teller wants to acknowledge it or not. Even ignoring the lyrics, there’s an inherent darkness to the music on tracks like ‘The Handing Down’, with its rumbling bassline and electric guitars that seem to interrupt the song rather than complement it. It’s a spikier, angry version of the kind of folksy-rock that the band have specialised in since name change from Songs: Ohia to the current incarnation, but it’s a rare moment on this album, where sparsity is key.
The mini-hiatus has done little to diminish Molina’s turn of phrase, either. “It’s a long way between horizons, and it gets farther every day.” Given his recent move to London, away from his bandmates, literally an ocean apart from the country where his life, thus far, has taken place, it’s a wonderful lyric about dislocation, homesickness, about missing those most important to you. The unfortunate thing is, while he’s still capable of this from time to time, he’s also capable of sounding completely void of any inspiration. He’s bragged in recent interviews that the album took a very short amount of time to write. He should definitely have taken a little longer. It’s puzzling that someone with such ability to write a great tune should also churn out something as mindless as ‘Knoxville Girl’, a four-minute snooze-fest covered in droning guitars and drawling, simplistic lyrics about mercy. Despite being peppered with brilliance, it’s the kind of album where you just wish a little more care had been taken. Molina has claimed 22 tracks were culled from the recording sessions, on the evidence of the album, that could easily have been 26 or 27. A 14-track album is a bit on the long side anyway, especially when some of the tracks are as disposable as these.
Nonetheless, this is one of Steve Albini’s finest pieces of work in a long time. The album sounds perfect, the spirit of an old country record is evoked without ever resorting to a raw and lo-fi sound, which has never done the band any favours in the past. Albini puts Molina’s vocals to the fore, and it’s easy to underestimate how important a decision that is: he has one of those voices that just soars above everything else, capable of conveying a live performance out of your headphones. He struggles when his band are anything more than a backdrop for his lyrics. That isn’t to undervalue the quality of the music occasionally on display here, but much like his most obvious comparison Will Oldham, quality arrangements are just a bedrock for what the artists really have to say. It’s a worthy return for Magnolia Electric Co., but there’s definite room for improvement. We shouldn’t have long to wait to find out: Molina claims to have written six albums in the last three years, all of them waiting for release. Providing he keeps the quality to the standard of the first half of this album, he’s going to remain a very hard man to ignore.