Five years after his death, Eduardo Alonso pays tribute to Jason Molina by looking at his musical legacy and troubled life.
Singer songwriter Jason Molina died five years ago. Too much alcohol the news said. He was just 39. I’m turning 39 in a few months, so lately I’ve found myself returning to Jason Molina’s music and understanding the anxiety that fueled a large part of his career.
This year also marks the 15th anniversary of Molina’s most important and celebrated album, The Magnolia Electric Co. One album that split Molina’s career in two similar, yet very different halves.Two sides – like a vinyl record. Side A: Songs: Ohia, or introspective folk rock explorations. Side B: The Magnolia Electric Co., or late night Americana songs in the pub.
Jason Molina was one of those troubled artists. A complicated figure and a prolific songwriter, who spent many days on the road. One of those soul-searching, tormented songwriters that wrote from a very intimate, dark place. Like Nick Drake, Elliott Smith or Mark Linkous.
Molina was not famous, but five years after his passing, his body of work is reaching a larger audience. As is often the case, he’s more revered now than during his lifetime — Kevin Morby and Waxahatchee recently covered a couple of his songs. This is not a surprising phenomenon despite what he wrote not being fashionable. While it hailed from a place of darkness and sorrows, the universality of his songs connects deeply with an audience. He wrote about his demons and the things he loved and while doing it, created a unique imaginary of ghosts, moonlight, rain and lightning, roads and deserts. Within this landscape, there’s an indestructible honesty in his writing that anyone who listens can identify. Who hasn’t looked into the abyss once or twice?
He wrote about his demons and the things he loved and while doing it, created a unique imaginary of ghosts, moonlight, rain and lightning, roads and deserts
For more than a decade, the music of Songs:Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co. — Molina’s two bands/monikers, were largely a process that reflected upon what it means to be living. And, for the singer, this business of living is as much about trying.
Life as a trial
The concept of trying resonates with many of Jason Molina’s songs. He constantly returned to this idea. Trying for what? Probably anything and everything that human beings fight for. Trying to get out of bed each morning, to write better songs, to succeed. Trying to get a better job and stay sober. To be stronger and faster. Trying to love and be loved. Just trying to be happy.
He constantly returned to this idea. Trying for what? Probably anything and everything that human beings fight for
“The real truth about it is no one gets it right/ The real truth about is is we’re all supposed to try”, he sings in ‘Farewell Transmission’, the opening track in 2003’s The Magnolia Electric Co.
Molina rebelled against this futile existence. ‘Blue Chicago Moon’, the last song on 2002’s Songs Ohia album Didn’t It Rain, fades out with a mantra that goes “endless, endless…depression”. The singer comes face to face with the darkness and the desolation. It’s grim and bleak. Slow-paced music where silences are so heavy it’s not possible to feel anything.
And yet, despite the endless depression, Molina kept trying and couldn’t help singing: “But you are not helpless/ And you are not helpless/ Try to beat it/ And live through space’s loneliness/ You are not helpless/ I’ll help you to try to beat it”.
Whatever his inner troubles were, Jason Molina grabbed that hope tightly. A year later, his music felt reinvigorated with the release The Magnolia Electric Co. (2003).
This hope is what makes his music incredibly beautiful, and, in retrospect, terribly heartbreaking. Because Jason Molina’s music is comforting. Yes, his songs make us weep, we feel sadness, but they also lift us up because Molina never gave up hope. His music is a battle against a very real darkness, but always with bright rays of hope and light among the clouds. His insistence in trying meant making progress, not wallowing in despair.
Yes, his songs make us weep, we feel sadness, but they also lift us up because Molina never gave up hope
In his extensive discography — he released new music nearly every year – no other album embodies this vision as well as The Magnolia Electric Co. Until its release, the music of Songs: Ohia had been a very lo-fi affair. Introspective songs with sparse instrumentation. Overnight, the sound was different. Molina found himself rocking out in a full band setting. Such a drastic and defining change led Molina to retire Songs: Ohia and adopt Magnolia Electric Co as his band’s name, effectively entering the next phase of his career.
Keeping the emotional intensity of his songs, Molina’s new band turned into an electrifying roots-rock-powerhouse. With this newfound energy, Molina embraces hope and makes a case for strength and perseverance in the face of a futile existence. Most of the songs insist in the idea of trying, of making a change.
One way or another, every song on the album addresses this idea; On ‘I’ve Been Riding with the Ghost’ Molina’s tenor voice sings with reassurance: “I’ve been busy trying to make change/ I made a change”. The same idea is repeated in the following song, ‘Just Be Simple’, where we hear “But I’m not looking for an easy way out/ This whole life it’s been about / Try and try and try, try and try and try”.
This business of living is tough. And, certainly it wasn’t easy for Jason Molina. The pressure to make a change, to try to be better must have been unbearable. “See I ain’t getting better. I am only getting behind/ I am standing on a crossroad trying to make up my mind/ I’m trying to remember how it got so late/ Why every night pain comes from a different place/ Now something’s got to change”, he recalls in ‘I’ve Been Riding with the Ghost’. As we’re now aware of Molina’s destiny – the lyrics, the whole album, comes across as devastating.
I wonder if Molina really believed he’d ever beat his demons and get out of his particular sinkhole. In ‘Almost Good Enough’, he sings with his tongue firmly in cheek: “Did you really believe/ C’mon, did you really believe/ That everyone makes it out?”
I wonder if Molina really believed he’d ever beat his demons and get out of his particular sinkhole
Probably not. Perhaps the hope he grabbed just made him fade away slowly, until the bottle brought his life to an end. For the ten years that followed the release of The Magnolia Electric Co., Molina kept on trying. He stayed busy, with new albums coming out every year and dozens of shows across the world. “I was trying to sing the blues/ the way I find ‘em”, he wrote in one of his songs.
By 2010 however, Jason Molina had stopped being functional. He abruptly canceled a tour with Will Johnson and never returned to music. The last years of his life were spent in-limbo – in and out of hospitals and rehab centers. Health problems led to financial problems which led to a job on a farm in West Virginia raising sheeps and chickens. He attempted a return to music, sending his label manager cassettes with home recordings. Regrettably, as much as he tried to get back to his music, Molina ended up drinking himself to death.