Yesterday, when listening to the music of Jason Molina again, 24 hours after his sad, tragic death, there were many lyrics that jumped out at me. It’s not like I hadn’t noticed the lines before: the references to the blues, to the darkness, to shadows, ghosts, snakes, owls and wolves are both oblique and blindingly obvious at the same time. Yet somehow we shook the references off as not being completely autobiographical, or as a cry out from Molina amid the darkness and the overriding blues, it was just compelling song writing – writing that gave us a selection of the best records of the past 15 years. Monday 18th March changed all that when I discovered – through a friend with whom I’d shared Molina’s music across our own good and bad times in the past ten years – that Jason had died of organ failure due to alcoholism at the age of just 39. Listening to Magnolia Electric Co, then various songs from the Sojourner boxed set, it all became so clear just how deep into this awful disease Molina found himself. The rehab in 2009 came too late, his message to fans in May 2012 now looks like a note from someone who knew he could no longer outrun the shadows and the wolves that dogged his path, and – to use the title of one of his solo albums – it was time to “let me go let me go let me go”; a plea to the addiction ravaging his body, but also a cry to end the suffering of the past ten years.
Although I clearly remember seeing the album cover for 1997’s Songs: Ohia (or the Black Album, as fans called it) and subsequently hearing the songs from it that year and over the next couple of years, the names Songs: Ohia and Jason Molina got lost from my consciousness for a while, and it was only the music on an EP from Amalgamated Sons of Rest in 2002 (Molina, with Will Oldham and Alasdair Roberts) that reminded me of his work – and I’m eternally thankful for the day I bought that piece of vinyl. The same year gave us the epically sad Didn’t It Rain, the album that vies with 2003’s Magnolia Electric Co as Molina’s crowning glory, and marks the moment that I fell unconditionally in love with his music. Those two albums show off two sides to Molina’s character: recorded with the help of semi-regular sidekicks Jim Krewson, Jennie Benford and Mike Brenner, Didn’t It Rain is sparse and bleak, a paean to Molina’s blue collar background, full to the brim with sadness yet vibrant with a dark humour (check the titles ‘Steve Albini’s Blues’ and ‘Cross the Road, Molina’ as examples) there are so many moments that make it one of the decade’s best records. Whether it’s the way eight minutes roll by like 30 seconds in the opening track, the wonderful live recording of the whole thing, encapsulated by Molina’s muttering to his cohorts to “bring it back we’ll do it one more time” on the title track, the way ‘Ring the Bell’ and ‘Cross the Road, Molina’ bleed into each other or the sheer brilliance of ‘Blue Factory Flame’ in the way it captures the debilitating nature of depression or alcoholism: “paralyzed by emptiness”, it’s nothing more than a towering achievement.
While being no less bleak in terms of lyrical content, 2003’s Magnolia Electric Co (whether it’s the last album under the Songs: Ohia moniker or the first as Mag Elec) now takes on the sound of a man running from what he’s become, perhaps a last throw of the dice, and defined what was to become of the rest of Molina’s career. While we still had the sparse sound of companion release Pyramid Electric Co (which contains some of his finest work), pretty much every other album post-Ohia that Molina recorded had the full band sound, or was recorded in a more satisfying way than any other release. I generally settle on this as being Molina’s finest hour, and it’s certainly one of my favourite records of all-time, should that mean anything to anyone. Again, it’s a nod to Molina’s blue collar upbringing (and a tip of the hat to his metal-loving youth) and it’s reminiscent of two of the finest blue collar backing bands: Bob Seger’s Silver Bullet Band and – of course – Neil Young’s Crazy Horse.
Listening to it yesterday, I was struck how much from the off darkness hangs over all the tracks. Opener ‘Farewell Transmission’ (if you have to listen to one Molina track, make it this one) sings of “long dark blues”, “the real truth about it is / no one gets it right”, “there ain’t no end to the sands I’ve been trying to cross” over the best bar-room jam you’ll ever hear, then on ‘I’ve Been Riding With the Ghost’ Molina sings “see I ain’t getting better / I’m only getting behind”. The searing guitar burn of ‘Almost Was Good Enough’ gives us “no one makes it out / you’re talking to one right now / once...almost was good enough”. Molina never gets the easy way out he craves on ‘Just Be Simple’, and the cathartic release of ‘John Henry Split My Heart’ in which Molina praises his excellent band is too little too late for his already-split “full moon heart”. I won’t touch on closing track ‘Hold On Magnolia’ just yet...
As Magnolia Electric Co, Molina released three studio albums, plus the Sojourner boxed set and the searing live album Trials and Errors, recorded on tour in 2003 and the sound of an angry Molina struggling to cope with touring and his drinking. It was during this period I first saw Molina and co play live, a seriously noisy incarnation of the band playing songs from Magnolia Electric Co and versions of songs that would appear on What Comes After the Blues. Looking back now, that Molina was overweight, scruffy and burdened with troubles, yet the passion and electricity he and his band created was incredible. I saw him live only one more time after that: a solo show, just him and his electric guitar, dressed impeccably in a suit looking like he was an extra in Night of the Hunter and significantly slimmer and healthier. The music, of course, was brilliant. There was a burst of creativity between 2006-2009, with albums Fading Trails, Sojourner and Josephine all released, plus his last full album of new music Molina & Johnson, collaborating with Will Johnson of Centro-Matic and South San Gabriel.
He reached out, he tried: “I will be gone...but not forever”, “but if you’re stubborn like me”, “you never said you’d be young enough / or old enough / or strong enough / pretty enough / you were to us” but in the end it was too much. On the liner notes to one of his records, he wrote (and I paraphrase as I don’t have it to hand) “if the only two words you can ever say are thank you, then that’s enough”. I believe these words came from Molina’s grandmother. When Jason was found dead, he apparently had a phone with one number on it: his grandmother’s. I truly hope that was his last call, just to say “thank you”.
What I’ve written here doesn’t do justice to Molina’s music or his memory; it’s just something I wanted to write, maybe needed to, just to say those two words: “thank you”. I leave you with this one track; listen and enjoy. ‘Hold On, Magnolia’.