Jason Molina died on a Saturday night in Indianapolis with nothing but a cell phone in his pocket with only one number on it – his grandmother’s. At 39 years of age his body finally gave up trying – trying, a word that echoes through Molina’s work, now taking on extra resonance – and he died alone, his organs failing due to years of alcohol abuse. In the weeks and months after his death, various people – friends, touring partners – stepped forward to pay tribute to his towering talent as a song writer, but also to give a glimpse into the harrowing years of alcoholism, telling stories of a man in a bad way, getting into avoidable scrapes and barely being able to function as a human being on the most basic of levels. All this, hidden for much of his career, only brings into clearer focus the internal troubles that made his music so indefinably wonderful, affecting, emotional and stirring.
Molina’s music means so much to me; since discovering Didn’t It Rain, Songs:Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. is the music that soundtracks some of the happiest, and most interesting, years of my life. It’s faintly ridiculous that I should derive pleasure from music so harrowing and heartbreaking – especially now – but I can’t imagine a time where I won’t turn to Molina for comfort, solace or happiness. It’s just over ten years since I first stumbled across his name, on both Didn’t It Rain and Amalgamated Sons of Rest, his 2002 collaboration with Will Oldham and Alasdair Roberts, and it’s ten years this year since the release of the album that would define the second half of his career: The Magnolia Electric Co. Whether or not this is the last album by Songs:Ohia, or the first by Magnolia Electric Co hardly matters; it’s the record that remains undoubtedly not just Molina’s career high but one of the best pieces of music ever committed to tape. It’s been reissued by Secretly Canadian, with a bonus collection of demos, both as a tribute to the late singer and a celebration of ten years since its release
It didn’t initially look to be that way, though. With Didn’t It Rain it seemed Molina had reached his musical apex with his bleakest set of songs. As the final track “Blue Chicago Moon” fades out with talk of an “endless, endless…depression”, it seems Molina can sink no lower, and despite the black comedy at play on that record it doesn’t really feel like the only way is up. And yet, as soon as The Magnolia Electric Co opens up with the keening lap steel of “Farewell Transmission” that opens up into a classic rock song with endless jamming there’s a feeling that Molina has been invigorated by someone or something. Going back to that first listen of the record, to the person with no knowledge of Molina’s troubles, there was no doubt in my mind this was the sound of someone having the time of their lives, fighting against something, sure, but winning whatever battle they were having.
What strikes you most about Magnolia, in comparison to the silences that dominated Didn’t It Rain, is just how ambitious it is for a rock band. Recorded live by Steve Albini (Molina one professed in an interview he’d never taken more than three days to record an album, and once went through 21 songs in a day with Arab Strap for The Lioness) with the help of Jennie Benford (back again to lend voice and mandolin as on Didn’t It Rain), Mike Brenner on lap steel, Jim Grabowski on keys, Dan and Rob Sullivan on guitar and bass respectively, Dan McAdam on a variety of instruments, Jeff Panall on drums and the voices of Scout Niblett and Lawrence Peters, it’s a record that, looking back with extra knowledge, needed all these players to both lift the emotional weight and realise Molina’s vision – the dues the band deserve as sung by Molina on “John Henry Split My Heart”: “half I’m gonna use / to pay this band / half I’m savin’ / cos I’m gonna owe them”.
If you know Molina at all, you’ll know his various motifs and all are present on The Magnolia Electric Co. If it’s wolves, snakes, darkness, shadows, the blues, (cross)roads, and ghosts you’re looking for, they’re here, all dogging Molina’s path, variously dragging him back or casting a shadow. Second track, the blue collar jam of “I’ve Been Riding with the Ghost” finds Molina singing “See I ain’t getting better / I am only getting behind / Standing at the crossroads trying to make up my mind” and later, we find him trying to make a change (“almost…again”) and not quite making it. The title of the clanging, bruising and brooding “Almost Was Good Enough” casts Molina as the ghost, conning himself into believing he’s made it through and out the other side as he sings “I keep trying anyhow, and I’m still trying now…just to keep working”. The lyrical sentiment is matched by the music on the majority of tracks; Molina doesn’t let the darkness creep in on us here, keeping it at bay with an arsenal of electric guitars and howled, shouted and impassioned vocals. The sound of The Magnolia Electric Co is huge, and this is down to Steve Albini’s recording chops. I can’t think of many other albums that pull off the “live” feel as well as this: you can feel the electricity coursing through each note, and you’re pitched into the centre of this wonderfully talented jam band, guided by Molina the orchestrator. I’m reminded of the moment on “Didn’t It Rain” when you can her him command “bring it back, we’ll do it one more time”…but this time he doesn’t need the words, everyone in the room is on the same wavelength.
One of the great things about The Magnolia Electric Co is how the guest vocals don’t do anything to affect the pacing, emotion and feel of the record. Lawrence Peters’ wonderful old school country burr dominates “The Old Black Hen”, taking Molina’s tale about lifelong bad luck (“now sing it over the cradle of the child who’s born next / leave all the truth in so they know what comes next”) and making it so utterly canonical that you know it’s Molina who’s got the bad luck, but he’s just “singing the blues” the way he finds them, and trying to make the best of it. Scout Niblett’s turn on “Peoria Lunch Box Blues” is beautiful, her high-pitched vocals making that track seem otherworldly yet never out of place on Magnolia. The thunderous “John Henry Split My Heart’ is one of Molina’s attempts to write the Great American Novel in song, and one of his many tracks to reference sport – in this case, baseball. He saved the best for last (on the original version of the record) with the unwinding sadness and beauty of “Hold On Magnolia”. Here, over lap steel, Molina sings of battling against conceding defeat: “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.” There’s no doubt he’s singing to himself – the similarities between Magnolia/Molina are glaringly obvious. We know this wasn’t the true end for Molina, as he continued under Magnolia Electric Co – but it did signal the end of Songs: Ohia, the end of a particular part of Molina’s life, and in a way it’s a signpost for the beginning of the end.
On the reissue of Magnolia we get two extra songs after “Hold On Magnolia”; “Whip Poor Will” we’ve heard before, live and the recorded version on Molina’s final Magnolia Electric Co record, Josephine. This version is stripped down, vastly different and simply, tearfully, gorgeous: just Molina and Benford duetting it’s heartbreakingly delicate and countrified. The real treat, though, is “The Big Game Every Night” only heard on extremely rare releases before now. Unveiling itself over ten incredible minutes, it’s the definite Jason Molina song. While containing his usual tropes (moon, shores, fangs, black tails) Molina also covers American history, sport and music, dropping in mentions of Baltimore Colts, Mark Twain, Jefferson, Hank Williams and Bob Dylan before finally turning to himself, questioning what it means to be him, what it means to be American: “Show an American if really I am the snake they’re all saying / If they look up here do they see just my black tail swaying? / If I’m all fangs and all lies and all poison / If I’m really what they’re saying / I don’t want to disappoint them.” Why these two songs never made it to the final cut is something we’ll never know, but the latter stands as the best song Molina’s ever written.
We also get each of the original album tracks (save “Almost Was Good Enough”) in demo version, recorded as just Molina and guitar. Stark and skeletal, you can hear the “record” button being pressed at the start of each track before we hear Molina at his most intimate, similar to the Pyramid Electric Co album that came alongside The Magnolia Electric Co. It’s fascinating to hear Molina take the lead on “Old Black Hen” and “Peoria”, sketching out early lyrics to guide the melodies, and it’s a pleasure and a privilege – how ever difficult and heartbreaking it is to hear his voice in close proximity and know we’ll never hear it like that again – to get an insight into his recording processes.
We know what comes next: Molina went on to release a handful of albums as Magnolia Electric Co before finally giving into his disease, but he never sounds like giving in on any of the recordings he left us. I never had the honour of meeting Jason Molina, but I do have two memories of seeing him live. Once, with Magnolia Electric Co he played an angry and loud set (similar to what was captured on visceral live album Trials and Errors) for a small crowd in Glasgow, looking overweight, tired and generally unhappy. But it’s the second memory I’ll cherish most: playing a solo set in around 2004, he appeared slim, dressed like Robert Mitchum circa Night of the Hunter, happy and playing a set of completely unreleased and unheard tracks. Smiling after every song and thanking the crowd in the manner of a southern gentleman, he seemed content and ready to get back into the whole process – and maybe that was the problem. He was fooled into thinking all was well and he could go back to face the wolves, the snakes, the dark and the crossroads. The truth now is that he couldn’t. The Magnolia Electric Co provided hope and positivity through all the darkness and the blues, the “last light you’ll see”. Although it wasn’t enough to get Jason through, it should stand as testament to not giving in. Don’t be consumed by the wolves and the snakes; don’t get lost in the dark. Let the big moon shine on you and hold on, dammit.