Songs: Ohia – Magnolia Electric Co. (Secretly Canadian – 2003)

For Songs: Ohia’s Jason Molina, ‘the road’ is the metaphor which frames our understanding of landscape, experience and emotion; the same road in which Kerouac saw the crumbling American dream. It is the unending trail of discovery and recrimination juxtaposed with a harsh Midwestern wilderness, replete with gothic folklore from long forgotten superstitions. His seventh and final album under the Songs: Ohia moniker saw what had started as a stark DIY project, end with a full band and the joy of recording under the watchful eye of legendary audiophile Steve Albini in Chicago, before promptly changing their name, contrarily enough, to Magnolia Electric Co. Confused? Perhaps it’s best that way, for far be it from Molina to offer answers, only glimpses into fluctuating shades of darkness and the soul of Americana which goes beyond tokenistic plaid.

Album opener ‘Farewell Transmission’ starts with just such promises of oblique threat as an apocalyptic warning that ‘the whole place is dark, every light on this side of the town, suddenly it all went down’, before later intoning retribution, having been spurned: ‘I’ll streak his blood across my beak and dust my feathers with his ash.’ This is no introspection of the down on luck, lovelorn soul in a sprawling metropolis; this is the America of Poe, Hawthorne and Lovecraft, of Crazy Horse and in some ways reminiscent of the same south that the Drive-By Truckers have spent much of their work trying to evoke. At its conclusion and through the malaise of lapsteel and three part harmonies, Molina demands that we ‘listen’, over and over until we are left in doubt as to whether we should be sympathetic, questioning or simply fearful of those ‘long dark blues’.

Musically, it’s the simplicity at the heart of the performances that drive the dark heart of the lyrics, with Jeff Pannall’s drums echoing the no frills approach of the likes of Ralph Molina, while Jennie Benford’s backing vocals summon up the tragically cut short partnership of Gram Parsons and Emmy-Lou Harris, as she casts a supporting shadow over the reoccurring motif of ‘the road’.  The bitter irony of perennial nomad Molina questioning ‘why put a new address on the same old loneliness’ on ‘Just Be Simple’, while the molasses-thick guest vocals of Lawrence Peters on old the country waltz ‘The Old Black Hen’ speak of the ‘bad luck lullaby’ and an almost perpetual darkness present from childhood. British born Will Oldham collaborator Scout Niblett provides the album’s second guest lead vocals, providing typically otherworldly pathos in with ‘Peroria Lunchbox Blues’, lamenting a loss of childlike innocence.

The closing tracks of the album perhaps best sum-up Molina’s world and his influences entrenched in the myth of the developing America, one built like Steinbeck novel, through the perspiration and heartbreak of the working man on ‘John Henry Split My Heart’. John Henry, the American folk hero who raced against a steam powered hammer and won, only then to die hammer in hand, struck a blow for the common man against unstoppable dehumanising mechanisation, with nought but his own strength, is invoked against a ‘Rust Never Sleeps’-era Neil Young guitar fuzz, as the road and Molina’s heart takes one last blow. This musical violence is in sharp contrast to the fragility of string-laden closer ‘Hold On Magnolia’, with Molina once again seeking ‘that great highway moon… before the dark finally gets a hold on me.’ It an album often full of such stark brutality, it’s the light at the end of the tunnel which becomes the most tragic. Perhaps for all of us, it’s the hope we can’t stand.

For Jason Molina, the clear need for inertia is all consuming. Currently a resident of London, having lived for various periods of time in 33 cities across the US, he has fallen strangely silent since the release of 2009’s ‘Josephine’. While for some artists this may seem par for the course, but when you consider the 15 other album releases in the 12 years which preceded it, there is undoubtedly concern about his current sabbatical due to an undisclosed illness. Perhaps, as The Band’s Robbie Robertson ruefully explains on Scorsese’s ‘The Last Waltz’, that he had to stop touring because it was tempting fate to be on the road that long, it’s that Molina merely needs to see some home comfort. Irrespective, this is an album of broken hearts, broken promises and a journey into those ‘long dark blues.’

James Tiernan

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