Songs: Ohia: The Magnolia Electric Co. 15 Years Later

By Clayton Ambrose
Music Journalist

“The whole place is dark,” exclaims frontman Jason Molina on “Farewell Transmission,” the first track on The Magnolia Electric Co. This initial line encapsulates more about the album than one might expect the first five words of an album to do, making immediate note of a disappearance of light where it once existed. This album, the last of Molina’s run under the Songs: Ohia moniker, is an entire work about that proverbial loss of light, or more specifically about the ever shortening race to escape the rapidly encroaching darkness. The Magnolia Electric Co. is a timeless portrait of pain, depression and of the long, dark blues. Over the course of eight epic folk rock tracks, Molina spins his suffering into beautiful and sorrowful poetry, with his lone wolf’s howl wringing the life out of gorgeous instrumentals. This album, 15 years since its release and five years since the untimely passing of Jason Molina, remains one of the breathtaking representations of the human struggle ever put to tape.

Jason Molina grew up a metalhead in a trailer park in Cleveland, Ohio, playing bass in metal bands in his teenage years. It wasn’t until his tenure at Oberlin College that Molina began drifting away from metal and into folk rock and country as he honed and developed his songwriting talents. He recorded his first single under the Songs: Ohia name, Nor Cease Thou Never Now, and sent it to Will Oldham (also known as Bonnie “Prince” Billy) of Palace Records, who agreed to produce the song under the label. In 1997 the eponymous debut from Songs: Ohia was released by the then-infant label Secret Canadian, thus planting the seed for a long prolific career, with Molina releasing five albums within the six years between his debut and The Magnolia Electric Co.

These albums were created in Molina’s typical style, with sparse arrangements backing dark and emotional lyrical imagery. For The Magnolia Electric Co., however, Molina opts for a different tonal route, enlisting the help of legendary rock producer Steve Albini to engineer the album in 2002. The Magnolia Electric Co. was released on March 3, 2003 to critical claim but not any particular commercial success. Songs: Ohia and Magnolia Electric Co., Molina’s next project with a more stable lineup, would continue to make brief encounters with success but would never completely break through, a good portion of which can be attributed to Molina’s reluctance to reach fame, leading to the compulsive self-destruction of his own upward trajectory.

The album, as mentioned, begins with the sprawling country rock masterpiece “Farewell Transmission,” which begins this tragic tale at its end. This song establishes many of the running themes that can be found throughout the album, one of the most prominent being the simple concept of trying. At various instances on the album Molina makes reference to the act of trying: “The real truth about it is/We’re all supposed to try,” on track “Farewell Transmission,” “This whole life it’s been about/Try and try and try/Try and try and try/To be simple again,” on “Just Be Simple,” and “No one has to be that strong/But if you’re stubborn like me/I know what you’re trying to be,” on Hold On Magnolia.

Molina finds himself in a very human position against the odds, where the only option left is to try and get back to where you’re from or potentially find the peace you never had to begin with. But all this effort and all this trying can be met with irreversible failure that will signal only desolation. At the end of “Farewell Transmission,” Molina makes a chilling proclamation as the music swells around him: “Mama here comes midnight/With the dead moon in its jaws.” The moon, an example of the motif of light in the darkness, is slain by the beastly pitch black of midnight, proudly displaying Molina’s crushed hope clinched in its teeth. The song then ends with a sorrowful chorus of the album’s mantra, “Long dark blues,” before winding down and finishing on single command from Molina: “Listen.”

In the midst of this struggle, Molina portrays himself as a lonesome rider traversing the endless desert mentioned in “Farewell Transmission.” His portrait comes across in a similar manner to classic Wild West figures, outlaws who are constantly running and running from a foreboding presence hanging over their heads. In this case, Molina is persistently tailed by a spectre that bears no name but is only referred to as “the ghost” in different songs on the album.

On “Almost Was Good Enough,” this ghost is an antagonist in Molina’s time of comfort, “A tall shadow dress how the secrets always dress/When they want everyone to know that they’re around.” In response to words of encouragement from the possibility of a fresh start, the figure leans in an whispers: “My friend over there don’t know what he’s talking about.” The song’s unchanging rhythm mimics the nature of the interaction, a potential for desperately needed change met with stalemate by the familiar forces of harsh reality. This ghost takes on a different form in “Just Be Simple” as a figure that withholds an unknown “secret” from Molina, who theorizes that this force has been “letting me win,” which puts Molina in an almost childlike position where he is being protected from true loss by this fate-like character, much to his detriment.

Between Molina’s confessionals lie the two anomalies of the album in “The Old Black Hen” and “Peoria Lunch Box Blues,” mostly attributed to the fact that they are fronted not by Molina but by singers Lawrence Peters and Scout Niblett respectively. “The Old Black Hen” breaches more into the realm of folklore than personal introspection, although not depicting any tale in particular. Peters’ deep drawl tells the tale of the “old black hen” over a classic country tune, repeatedly mentioning its song that Peters dubs as “the bad luck lullaby.” The hen, who might be a death/God figure based on the reference to the book of Revelation, sings this song to seemingly cast a curse over the cradles of children, telling them of “the true love they never find.” One might imagine Molina once again in the place of this child, being predestined for misery without a chance for defense and leaving him as the fugitive of fate that we see him as in the rest of the album.

“Peoria Lunch Box Blues” tackles similar themes in a different manner. This song features Niblett softly crooning about the similar theme of the things we endure as children that our futures use as foundation, albeit without the use of any mythology. She speaks a character named “Gwendolyn,” recalling her childhood when, “You learned how to say/’Everything you love tries to get away’/Then you learned to say/’Everything you love eventually does.’” “Gwendolyn’s” path has been set in stone by forces out of her control, much in the same way that the child in “The Old Black Hen” had no say in the hex that will leave them loveless and unfulfilled, sharing a sentence with “Gwendolyn.” It also is of note that Molina opted to have these two songs sung by people other than himself considering their reliance on storytelling outside of Molina’s point of view, even though they share the same themes found in the rest of the album.

For the penultimate track, “John Henry Split My Heart,” Molina calls upon an actual figure of American folklore, the legendary John Henry, a steel-driver who won in a test of strength against the machine meant to replace him, only to die in the end. The song functions as a climax for the album, containing the most bombastic instrumental on Magnolia Electric Co., featuring crying steel guitars and a steady, driving drum beat that could draw parallels to the title character. The song begins with Molina standing on the “66 highway” and being told by a wisteria and magnolia flower, “Don’t come back.” Molina, on his great highway, has been rejected by symbols of purity and rebirth. In this moment of desperation, Molina begs Henry to “split this full moon heart” and put him out of his misery, finally ending his conflict at his lowest point. This song contrasts with the rest of the album as a moment of almost violent outburst compared to the relative resignation of songs like “Just Be Simple” and “Almost Was Good Enough.” The song ends with a reprise of the “long, dark blue” melody from “Farewell Transmission,” perhaps this time in reflection of a journey rather than a discovery.

Then, at the end of the long and weary road, we have the massive “Hold On, Magnolia.” The finale of The Magnolia Electric Co. finds Molina at the end of the line, coming to terms with his own cessation while relating cautionary tales to an unknown third party only referred to as “Magnolia.” Molina’s voice rings out, “Hold on, Magnolia/To that great highway moon,” once again bringing back the imagery of the moon as a guiding light in the dark, but this time shining for someone else other than him. Symbolically, the magnolia flower represents purity and nobility, which paints Molina in this song as desperately trying to save or protect something that he sees as untainted but nonetheless on the same road that he has spent his whole life trying to traverse. He refers to this character with reverence, admitting that “You might be the last light I see/Before the dark finally gets a hold of me,” which also reveals his understanding of his own situation.

In this moment, Molina has “worked it out” with all of his doubts, acknowledging the “lightning that has just signed my name to the bottom line,” signaling that the pale riders that have chased him his entire life have finally sealed his fate. In the end, as the music builds and consumes its fading orchestrator, Molina relinquishes himself, his voice ringing out like the whistle of the train that awaits him at the final station: “I think it’s almost time.”

I wish I could say that The Magnolia Electric Co. was a final exorcism of long-dwelling demons before a beautiful redemption, and that the ending of “Hold On, Magnolia” signaled a rebirth rather than a fading away. Molina’s alcohol-soaked predator hunted him until the very end, destroying opportunities and relationships with its murderous jaws and its long, dark blues. The Magnolia Electric Co. is sadly one of many portraits of a man under duress of this own mind, all detailing a struggle that built for years and years before finally taking his life in his Indianapolis apartment on March 16, 2013. However, these albums, these beautiful works, are not meant to be hidden out of unbearable sadness and lost to time. Molina devoted his life to his art, and even though his highway ended before its time, we can still celebrate his works and carry his memory on shoulders to give to anyone who may need a sign that there are people who keep trying, and trying, and trying to be better against, for some, insurmountable odds. The Magnolia Electric Co. is a true, once in a lifetime masterpiece and we can not afford to let beauty like this die. Jason Molina will be gone, but not forever.

 

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