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Albums of Our Lives: Songs: Ohia’s Magnolia Electric Co.

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The news of Jason Molina’s death came to me in a storm. I was about to teach a class when I saw the first posts announcing that he was gone. I didn’t know what to do. I almost cried in front of my students. The wind started howling and it sounded as weary as Molina’s voice. The rain followed, whipping the windows and drumming the roof of the shitty science building where our class meets. I tried to tell my students about Molina and what he’d meant to me—how his music carried me when nothing else could, how loving music the way I loved his music was a different kind of marriage or brotherhood—but none of them knew him and it felt horrible to be around people whose lives wouldn’t be any different after the news.

I let class out early and walked through the heavy rain back to my office. Soaked, I sat at my computer and put on “Farwell Transmission,” the opener on Molina’s Magnolia Electric Co. album. He sings: “I will be gone, but not forever.” I finally cried, sitting there at my desk, one of my favorite songs rattling from tinny, overturned speakers. I listened to the rest of the album and cancelled my afternoon classes.

Something that had built up in me over the last decade collapsed. Molina was always writing about his sickness—stuck somewhere between “getting better” and “getting behind,” as he sings on “I’ve Been Riding with the Ghost”—and he helped me deal with what I saw as my own sickness. The black depressions I fell into in my early twenties. Long bouts of heavy drinking and fucking up. I didn’t know what it meant that he was gone. I’d lived inside his songs for years and they’d changed how I viewed the world. I didn’t feel betrayed. I was just frightened. Sore afraid. Molina hadn’t made it out.

I first heard Molina in early 2002 when I bought Songs: Ohia’s Didn’t It Rain at 33 Degrees, my favorite record store in Austin. I’d purchased it on a whim because I liked the cover art and titles. The next day I was back to buy whatever other Songs: Ohia I could: The Lioness, Ghost Tropic, Impala, Axxess & Ace, the split EP with My Morning Jacket. The rest I ordered from Secretly Canadian. I ghosted after tour CDs, 7 inches, and other rarities.

Almost immediately I ranked Molina up there on my list of favorites with Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, Shane MacGowan, Neil Young, Nick Cave, and Will Oldham. I copied Didn’t It Rain for my buddies. I wore out my copy of Mi Sei Apparso Come Un Fantasma and had to order another one. I preordered Magnolia Electric Co. in early 2003 and couldn’t wait for it to show up at my doorstep. There’s a picture my friend Simon snapped of me the day it arrived, putting the CD in the stereo, as if I were showing off something I’d made.

***

The tenth anniversary of the release of Magnolia Electric Co. earlier this year passed with little fanfare. Other than Autumn Bird Songs, a long-in-the-works EP released in the fall of 2012 as a soundtrack to a book of William Schaff’s artwork, Molina had pretty much fallen off the map.

Before all the silence, Molina was one of the most prolific and underappreciated songwriters and performers around. As Songs: Ohia, he ratcheted out album after album of low, dark howlers. Didn’t It Rain (2002) signaled a shift in sound, a fuller gospel wallop. That sound developed into 2003’s Magnolia Electric Co., a rumbling train of a record, a thrashing blur of lightning and concrete and pedal steel. Recorded live by Steve Albini at his Electrical Audio Studios over three days, the album would be Molina’s first as Magnolia Electric Co. It was released on March 4, 2003, and that same month—in keeping with the spirit of the stylistic shift he’d made—Molina decided to drop the Songs: Ohia moniker he’d been recording under since 1996.

Most people considered Magnolia Electric Co. the final Songs: Ohia record, and you’ll find it labeled as such in reviews and even on Secretly Canadian’s website. However you view it—as the end of Songs: Ohia or the beginning of Magnolia Electric Co. (I see it as both)—Molina’s prayer for restoration to simplicity swings with weariness and anguish and hard-luck authority.

“Farewell Transmission,” the epic seven minute opener, easily my favorite first track ever, kicks off like this: “The whole place is dark / Every light on this side of the town / Suddenly it all went down / Now we’ll all be brothers of the fossil fire of the sun / Now we will all be sisters of the fossil blood of the moon / Someone must have set us up.” You’re listening to a rock song, sure, but the lyrics—the way Molina turns a phrase, his concerns with darkness and sound, with blood and history—and that wilting country wail signal that you’re involved in something more beautiful than you could’ve imagined. And you are involved, deeply, totally. You’re pulled up in the strong wind of it all.

Some lyrics on this album run through me like blood. “Farewell Transmission” features this ghost breath of a line: “Mama, here comes midnight with the dead moon in its jaws.” “I’ve Been Riding with the Ghost” arrives and departs with blinding economy, Molina singing: “I put my foot to the floor / To make up for the miles I’ve been losing / See I’m running out of things / I didn’t even know I was using.” One of my favorite songs ever, “Just Be Simple,” has this Haggard-perfect observation: “Why put a new address on the same old loneliness?” Later in the song, Molina says: “If Heaven’s really coming back / I hope it has a heart attack / When they see how dangerous it is for guys like that” and “Everything you hated me for / Honey, there was so much more / I just didn’t get busted.” Trembling closer “Hold On Magnolia” feels like something dying and coming back to life in your hand: “Hold on Magnolia to the thunder and the rain / To the lightning that has just signed my name to the bottom line.” I feel all these lyrics more than I understand them. It’s an album rich with images, ferocious in its approach to balancing hope (getting better) and hopelessness (not making it out).

Molina was fascinated with the moon and stars, flowers and trees, deserts and trains, static and silence, leaving and staying, the city and the country, birds, darkness, the heart, history, blood, resurrection, sickness, change, ghosts, the Midwest, doubt, heaven, the blues, thunder, and the highway. All of these things found their way onto the album, and when you listen you can feel Molina—his voice somehow illuminated by lightning—guiding you through an earth-shaking storm.

I used to think that this was the kind of record truck drivers must listen to. Never mind that I’ve never really known a truck driver. It’s probably more truthful to say that it’s the kind of record people who don’t know shit about truck drivers imagine truck drivers listening to. Part of that’s not my fault: Secretly Canadian billed it, on its release, as an album sure to be embraced “by the world’s truck drivers, sorority chicks, and hockey players, alike.” The record, they continued, had “more than one song that could be played at a strip joint or monster truck show.” If there’s a stripper out there who strips to “I’ve Been Riding with the Ghost,” I’d like to know her.

But, mostly, the attempts to classify the album as “working class rock” or “white soul” always fell flat and just seemed like a weird marketing ploy to me. No matter how accessible the songs, Magnolia Electric Co. was never going to be embraced by a mainstream audience. Molina claimed to be going for a “1950s sound, ancient echo techniques on the voxs, doo wop backup singers, [and] dirty guitars,” and that provides us with probably the best description of the record we’ll get: it’s raw and heartfelt, never falsely retro, always striving to sound like something coming across a great distance.

***

In my house, we celebrated the anniversary of Magnolia Electric Co. by spinning it on repeat all day, my wife and son dancing around the living room, the windows heavy with the kind of guilt and triumph only this album can elicit from us. To me, it just doesn’t get old. It’s my go-to on long walks on cold nights when a Molina moon brightens the sky. I was listening to it the day before my son was born, and I used to rock him to sleep to “Hold On Magnolia.” There’s a crossroads in Gardiner, NY, where I remember belting out “Just Be Simple” with my wife as the wipers cleared the windshield of a heavy rain. Driving through the Bronx on summer afternoons, I pumped “Almost Was Good Enough” with the windows down. “John Henry Split My Heart” was in my headphones when my mother and I sat in the hospital with my stepdad a few weeks before he passed away.

In Mississippi, where I live now, I’ve cleaned the house and knocked back whiskeys on the front porch with friends and played with my son while “Farewell Transmission” gusted from the speakers. I’ve carried the record with me to France and Italy and Spain and New Orleans and Seattle and Kentucky. I’ve listened to it when I was high with happiness and booze-shaky with fear. It’s been there for me to get healed by when I feel the old sadness coming back.

Molina was always making peace with the fact that terrible things awaited him, and it’s somehow uplifting. On “Farewell Transmission,” he sings: “The real truth about it is there ain’t no end to the desert I’ll cross / I’ve really known that all along.” But on “Almost Was Good Enough,” we get this: “Did you really believe / That everyone makes it out? / Almost no one makes it out / I’m going to use that street to hide / From that human doubt / To hide from what was shining / And has finally burned us out / But if no one makes it out / How come you’re talking to one right now / For once almost was good enough.”

For Molina, there was always the struggle of falling back into the darkness, but there was also always a way out, something to hang hope on, and this ability to walk the rail between despair and faith marked so much of his greatest work.

Then there’s the majestic cover art by William Schaff—a cloud throwing lightning, a crying owl with human hands, and a magnolia, all backed by a long darkness and a strip of deep blue—that pins itself to your memory. You look at it and you listen and you forget that Jason Molina’s gone now. You forget everything else you love.

This album can be a dusty slant of light in the corner or it can be bones you’ve dug up from a riverbed or it can be the sounds of birds or it can be talking to the devil or it can be skimming your sickness like fat from milk in the worst of winters or it can be kneeling in front of your wife and kissing her elbows or it can be all you’ve ever learned about death. For me, what Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea is to the 1990s, Magnolia Electric Co. is to the 2000s. It frames the decade, makes sense and meaning of years of feeling lost and fearing sadness and holding steady and putting the hammer down.

This morning I drove my mother, who’s been visiting us for the past week, to the airport in Memphis. After I dropped her at the terminal, I got in the car and blasted Magnolia Electric Co. so loud that the speakers went buzzy. I needed to grieve. I opened the windows and let the cottony wind climb in. It wasn’t storming anymore. I let Molina’s voice thunder against the sounds from outside. I crossed back into Mississippi and saw the magnolia on the welcome sign.

Magnolias flashed on the license plates in front of me. I was home in the Magnolia State and that felt right. I didn’t cry. I didn’t feel sick. I didn’t want the drive to end. I listened to other Molina—some of Nashville Moon and Didn’t It Rain, two tracks from Trials & Errors, the North Star Blues Session, “Heart My Heart,” “Whenever I Have Done A Thing In Flames”—but Magnolia Electric Co. was what I turned to first. I’m listening to it again right now. Molina may have crossed the bridge, but he’s still riding with me. He always will be.


William Boyle is from Brooklyn, NY and lives in Oxford, MS. His writing has appeared in Salon, L.A. Review of Books, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, The Nervous Breakdown, and other magazines and journals. More from this author →