by Stephen Hudson
From the opening bars of Magnolia Electric Co., you are transported to a working-class American mining town, something akin to Clairton, Pennsylvania – the setting for Michael Cimino’s 1978 film The Deerhunter.
It’s midnight, and Jason Molina, a.k.a. Songs: Ohia, has wandered into town, stepped into a bar, and suddenly found a new dime-store jacket to wrap around his shivering voice and songs. And as the seven piece band burst into the greatest Crazy Horse tribute this side of the Monongahela River, the chatter and cigarette smoke parts, as Molina hustles through the crowd and takes the mic.
Electric guitars hack out a repetitive, irrepressible riff like miners chipping at the ‘cold grey rock’, the rhythm section propels the song like a piston through the ‘hot mill steam’ and then a soaring lap steel breaches the fog, gushing silver moonlight into the river that cuts through the town. As album openers go, Farewell Transmission is a stunning seven-minute rush of blue-collar, countrified rock elevated by Molina’s desperate poetry. By the time he howls, ‘Mama, here comes midnight with the dead moon in its jaws,’ the band is white-hot and the Friday night barroom floor is bowing with beaming faces.
The bar-room metaphor is not used lightly though. Jason Molina died of alcohol-related illness in 2013, and this record is certainly not a whisky-soaked piece of myth-making from a tragic troubadour. And throughout Magnolia Electric Co., Molina seems to face his demons clear-eyed and sober – checking then re-checking his odds of redemption within each song. At no point is he fooling himself.
In fact, in an interview with The Quietus in 2014, the album’s engineer, Steve Albini, talked about the record’s success being partly due to the way that Molina managed to keep his addiction away from the sessions – ‘He never made having a drink the focus of the evening… the whole session, to me, ended up feeling like a very comfortable, very fraternal, very pleasant experience.’
But hearing Molina’s bleak lyrics set against the radio friendly country-rock, it’s hard not to picture the him pushed onto the stage in the town’s dive bar, trying to be serious, trying to be listened to, while the band play on around him, taunting him like a ghost with everyone else’s vision of a good time. Riding With the Ghost’s backing vocalists even mockingly howl a harmonious refrain like ghouls from a kid’s cartoon.
Be Simple’s rust-belt balladeering sees sweethearts sway in a tangle of arms, as Molina delivers one of the record’s most crushing lines – ‘Why put a new address, on the same old loneliness,’ before continuing his character self-assassination and a plea ‘to be simple again’. While Old Black Hen marks a shift in tone as the band invite Lawrence Peters up onstage to perform guest vocal duties. And after a beer-neck guitar slide, you suddenly realise there’s been a switch in director – as if the Cohen Brothers have been dropped into steer Magnolia Electric Co.’s middle act. As Peters croons his way through the tune, he transforms into Tim Blake Nelson in full cowboy mode – his thumbs twist snugly in the front pockets of his Levis, flashing a devilish wink Molina’s way, as his voice pours like bourbon over the words, ‘Old Black Hen, is that you again, with the bad luck lullaby?’
A dark, surreal, almost sardonic taste lingers in the air; Molina, realising the big joke’s on him, rushes out to grab a lungful of air. He stands in the cold. Looks up at the stars. Behind him, through the glass, Scout Niblett’s raw, icy, emotionally fractured voice can now be heard opening Peoria Lunch Box Blues – a stark counterpoint to Old Black Hen’s hay-barn sarcastic warmth. Drawing courage from the possibility of a kindred spirit, Molina pulls up his jacket collar and heads back into the bar for the final act.
The band go full-blown Live Rust on the six minute John Henry Split my Heart, while Hold on Magnolia is longer, less bombastic, resigned and pretty. Everyone knows this is the last dance. Molina wipes his brow and musters the energy to belt out – ‘I think it’s almost time,’ and he keeps the last word hanging there in the air, until he’s sure it’s put a weary smile on all his brothers and sisters in the room.
Everyone came here tonight to forget themselves if only for a moment. And as they spill out into the slate-blue dawn, he mulls over a line he sang at the start of the night, which now sits a little heavier in his heart:
‘The real truth about it is there ain’t no end to the desert I’ll cross. I think I’ve known it all along.’
That he felt this way and promised to try anyway is his selfless gift.
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