by Maria Sledmere
Old Worry, Every Twilight: On Jason Molina’s Eight Gates
It’s four in the morning – and it’s not the end of December, but sometime in what we still, by the skin of our teeth call spring. I make a recording of the birdsong, which is bright as hell here. Recently, I have been learning about types of twilight, and how civil twilight is the brightest, and civil dawn is the moment when the geometric centre of the sun is six degrees below the horizon in the morning. Somehow, these facts — we’ll call them facts but they are also tales — are essential to my entrance to Eight Gates: Secretly Canadian’s posthumous release of solo recordings that Jason Molina made in London, ‘sometime in 2006, or 2007’. It’s four in the morning, not five in the afternoon, and the birdsong is bright as hell here. Writing this, it’s like I could reach the very city Molina walked as he made this record – its spectral possibility in his head; I could take the fantasy Eighth Gate of England’s capital, find myself ‘in this abortive Spring’ that Mark Fisher wrote of, crushingly, in relation to Burial’s self-titled debut, which was also a product of the haunted mid-noughties. If spring stopped in its coming, still there was a sort of blossom that fell out the sky into notes. Molina might have called this ‘Old Worry’. It takes a moment to catch that blossom, see it melt unseasonable in the winter of your chest, which has a heart, beating out cryptograms of the living and dead.
Take an image: a moon, a pair of closing eyes, a howling wolf, a set of crossroads, a scarecrow, a blackbird, a distant fire and engine groan. Vague memory of a prairie, ‘nearer to emptiness’, pulse of the unforgiving sun, the geometric centre. Let them dissolve where the sky would eat them empty. ‘Every twilight […] Every heartbeat / I vanish’ (Be Told The Truth). Across Eight Gates, London gothic meets the dark Americana of Molina’s imagination in scenes of melancholy dusted from a void familiar to many. Listening to this album, walking around in these sentences, looking for something to say, am I trying to understand the place from which Eight Gates was written? London Wall has seven gates, but Jason Molina, traipsing the city collecting trinkets of arcane history, found an eighth. Molina had an instinct for mythology. Although there was no documentary evidence to support this, he claimed to have suffered a mysterious spider bite in Italy, and back in London nursed a sort of medical solitude, while writing songs at home. Trying to parse the secrets of this album, I see the spider bite as a sort of trace – a mark of some need to define an injured point in time – psychic or otherwise. A spider bite, absent-present, like the moon smudged a semi-permanent light on your neck, like the sickle he sung of in Travels in Constants. A trace of how we had moved, glitched and touched in the labyrinthine city.
And the songs do this. They leave a mortal trace in your head. A sickle cut. Many are short – elliptical; the effect is not one of merely unfinishing, but a disruption of flow. We are circling the city, we are searching for autobiography here, but something is resistant to narrative structure. I’m reminded of the poet Sean Bonney, who writes in his Letters Against the Firmament (2015) of London’s seven gates in a broken rhythm of the burned and dead. He records each historical turn, each sense of oppression, as a beat: ‘Debt is bone. Versions of bone’. A sickle ticks against my sleep. A conclusion of twisted beauty is realised: ‘London a cursèd city, is beautiful in the smouldering spring’ (Bonney). As I listen to Molina’s record, the sombre blossom I tried summoning becomes cinders in the London air. The old-time quality of his voice belongs to a sense of inexorable mourning and loss – impossible to place. If spring is burning, who set the fire?
To ask, ‘Dawn who have we failed?’ as Molina does on Fire On The Rail is to gesture, sun-wise, towards horizons of the (un)known unknowns in our world. Is it war, or climate breakdown, or the imminent collapse of late capitalism? Is it masculinity, or the pressure of a career in human loneliness? The fragile harvests of a future yet to fail to reap? Is it the quiet light that every now and then goes out in your soul, and we say this is adulthood? The interludes of birdsong throughout Eight Gates bring me back to a window: a portal. I am looking at someone sifting the memory grains from the imagination; no, I am listening to every acoustic cut of the overgrown meadow. I am listening to whoever listens to these particular birds. Something buckles between the tiniest blade and the massive city, The Mission’s End: ‘And the magi in the dark / Somewhere, sometime before the dark / Built it all against tears / The tears / Built it all against the smallest fears’. With soft repetition and the fall of a rhyme, Molina himself enacts sorcery in the turn of a chord. The dark and the dark, the tears and the tears are words congealing more than things; words as resistance, materials, forming walls around sparse sound and air. But the architecture of these songs, their encompassing like London’s Wall, can only be a tremble, a take.
A take in, and of time.
‘The perfect take is just as long as the person singing is still alive,’ quips Molina at the beginning of She Says, before launching into soft strums and lament for ‘The last full moon of the saddest year’. These songs, especially She Says and The Crossroads and The Emptiness, are tethered to his studio presence – a moment of casual voicing and its posthumous, tender haunting. What I write here, I write with and into the album; to write about this release, as if this were any old record, seems too much to bear. ‘How could something be so falling apart?’ the question goes on Be Told The Truth, under the sorrowful strain of strings. This imperative passivity, be told, is how we trust Molina’s yarns to unwind for us. Listening, I let the story be told, and more than. The drift of a life. On Fire On The Rail, Molina sings into negation again: ‘My promises, not my promises’. How opening this essay I had told you the time, four in the morning, like it was a promise, like my words were full of ghosts, and you trusted me by entering into the lines – the twilight. The personified heartbreak, wandering through wilderness. It is all I can do to gloss this, but to quote those promises was to find myself snared in the briars of all their historical force. ‘Quotation says what we don’t know we don’t know. It tells. It teaches’ (Sarah Wood). ‘Roll me for a few minutes here, see what I get’, Molina sings, before singing in quotation, singing of all she says. How I would come out of the album, out of the essay, nicked by the brambles and sickles of chance; but somehow, with the ghosts, there was something I learned.
How some of us try climbing the tangled walls; how some of us invent portals, how some of us glide through the gates made by others. ‘Everybody has to go to sleep, and I wanna play this song…’ (The Crossroad and The Emptiness). It’s like we’re in the room with him. Like we could just touch the moment, at the turning centre… There is this sense of a record that took all night, ‘sundown / December’ and into the civil twilight of spring. ‘It’s late I know’, goes the refrain of Thistle Blue under faint brass and strums of guitar, as if Molina were covering his tracks with a sense of already having looked back at the present. ‘Whose heartbreak could I not leave behind?’ and in negation, the song erasing itself in snow, we listen. I try looking back for the fire on the rail, for the blackbird’s scorn; looking for proof that disaster had happened, that the song was a landscape. That this album could arrive now, folded inside some other disaster of the twenty-first century, is not a betrayal of the singular pain of Jason Molina, but rather testament to the richness, complexity and endurance of his talent. A folk teller’s talent for holding other worlds inside the world, for writing towards the edge of it, where everything slants. Let’s otherwise lie in the long grass a voice could cut down in heaps of soft, imperfect takes; that it mattered to be alive, that it matters he was, and we are, and listening. It burns bright as hell; blossom and cinders, void as portal. I find another line here, then again, this time from poet and fellow Molina fan, Peter Gizzi, in a poem called The Present is Constant Elegy: ‘Along the way I discovered a voice, a sun-stroked path / choked with old light, a ray already blown’.
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