Farewell Transmission: RIP Jason Molina

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Photo Courtesty Secretly CanadianIt’s an all-too-familiar story: A brilliant rock musician succumbs to addiction. The rush of creating music isn’t enough, and said rock star feels the need to supplement it. Or perhaps the same drive that is behind creative impulse also fuels the urge to pick up a bottle or a needle, and not put it down. Those are some of the oft-romanticized rock creation/destruction myths. Rock music history is a stockpile, a wrecking yard littered with them. One of the latest casualties, March 16 of this year, was Jason Molina of the bands Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co, from organ failure due to alcoholism.

Jason Molina joined other rock greats who've died young, albeit at 39 rather than 27.
Jason Molina joined other rock greats who’ve died young, albeit at 39 rather than 27.
We all owe death at the end—No One Here Gets Out Alive, to borrow the title of a sensationalist biography of Jim Morrison—so why not incinerate like a quick-burning match, emitting at least as much heat as light, sputtering out fast into the darkness from whence you came? On the other hand, rock n’ roll self-destruction has become such a cliché that, by now, it’s pretty tiresome. Molina was 39, somewhat old by rock n’ roll self-destruction standards—over a decade beyond the so-called magical number 27 of Hendrix, Morrison and Kurt Cobain. It’s a bit odd writing this on a Sunday morning as news comes of the death of Lou Reed, who lasted well past the burnout age, but sang of the seductive entanglement of addiction in “Heroin” and other songs—often born from his own life experiences—as well as the redeeming value of music in songs like “Rock & Roll.”

 

Country music, even in the somewhat academic genre of alt-country, takes much of its subject matter—its bread and butter—from the wreckage of dreams gone wrong. It shapes romantic, heroic tales out of the most mundane circumstances. Molina, growing up in Lorain, Ohio, deep in America’s “heartland,” switched from playing heavy metal to something more or less alt-country-sounding in his early 20s, seeming to find that to be a more fitting vehicle for what he felt compelled to express. He made his first recording with his ever-shifting assemblage of musicians known as Songs: Ohia in 1997. It was about the time of Uncle Tupelo, the band that spawned Wilco and Son Volt, and influenced scores of alt-country bands. It was the apex of the “No Depression” musical movement.

 

Songs: Ohia was the flagship band for the Secretly Canadian indie record label, based in Bloomington, Ind. The band’s self-titled full-length debut was the first album on the label that wasn’t a re-release, and Songs: Ohia recorded 10 releases altogether for the imprint, culminating in 2003’s Magnolia Electric Co. The album was a turning point in Molina’s career and the direction of his music. Produced by Steve Albini, it’s a fuller, more rock-ensemble sound than his earlier, often very spare recordings. It’s also, debatably, the point at which he changed the band’s name to Magnolia Electric Co, which also released a sizeable body of work for the label. It’s unclear because “MECO” doesn’t appear on the album art (an idiosyncratic owl with human eyes), and Secretly Canadian lists it under Songs: Ohia—plus Molina started calling the band that later during their spring tour.

 

Magnolia Electric Co had a 10th anniversary re-release Nov. 12, along with B-sides and demo recordings. It’s a specially packaged set, befitting the significance of the original recording. The album, overall, uses the power of the full band as a framework for Molina’s musings, his lyrics never before so plainspokenly poetic, beautiful yet, at times, almost unbearably bleak. The workmanlike drive of the band and the quality of the sound recalls ’70s acts like Warren Zevon, and Magnolia Electric Co covered “Werewolf of London” on their 2005 EP, Hard To Love a Man. His words are a working-class poetry that, at times, surpasses Springsteen and is also much more existential, excavating the lonely, dark center at the heart of the self. It’s even—if it’s not too much of a stretch—a little “Rilkean” in its romantic desperation.

 

The guitar slide leading off the album’s opener, “Farewell Transmission,” sounds like it signals resignation, but the song is one of resolve, and it sets the tone for the rest of the album. He admits “The real truth about it is/No one gets it right/The real truth about it is/My kind of life’s no better off/If I’ve got the maps or if I’m lost.” His determination to proceed into that territory where maps are of no use is nothing short of stirring, and at the end, he beckons, “Through the static and distance/A farewell transmission/Listen.”

 

“I’ve Been Riding With The Ghost” follows traditional blues structure, with a ghostly-sounding guitar lead between verses. “None of them could love me if they thought they might lose me/Unless I made a change,” perhaps alluding to his problems with alcohol. He notes, “See I ain’t getting better. I am only getting behind.” In the twangy country ballad, “Just Be Simple,” he asks “Why put a newaddress on the same old loneliness/Everybody knows where that is,” reminiscent of Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere,” a major influence on Molina’s work.