Though Jason Molina has long been a staunch defender and advocate of releasing albums on vinyl, his latest release coincided with the 25th anniversary of the compact disc, and fairly revels in the rarely tapped possibilities of that dying format. The 4-CD, 1-DVD Sojourner boxed set arrives complete with a fold out star chart poster, Polaroid-sized cardstock liner note cards for each disc, and a heavy, silver Magnolia Electric Co. medallion in a velvet pouch, all secured in a spartan yet lovely wooden box. Originally conceived by Secretly Canadian as a 10-year retrospective of Molina’s work as Songs: Ohia, Magnolia Electric Co., and his given name, the box instead fulfills the promise of last year’s Fading Trails, a compilation of tracks orphaned from four separate, theretofore unreleased sessions. Thank the Lord. Presented in context with the rest of their intended, the Fading Trails tracks shine like never before on Sojourner’s four discs: Nashville Moon, Black Ram, Shohola, and Sun Session. The result is an even more fitting celebration of Molina’s accomplishments over the past decade than any best-of could hope to throw. The man simply works, and his labor pays off hundreds-fold.
Sojourner is credited as a whole to the moniker Magnolia Electric Co., but with Molina, names are indubitably tricky. The sole true successor to 2005’s What Comes After the Blues is Nashville Moon, a Steve Albini-produced full-length recorded with Molina’s steady touring crew. The Sun Sessions is a brief EP recorded with the Co. at the legendary studio, The Black Ram is a collaboration between Molina and Cracker/Camper Van Beethoven mastermind David Lowery, and Shohola is a “lost” album of solo home recordings akin to Pyramid Electric Co. and Let Me Go Let Me Go Let Me Go. Yet the four separate discs maintain a high level of consistency both in content and quality that stems from Molina’s relentless musical and lyrical obsessions. As has been joked too many times to count, there are enough moons and stars in Molina’s oeuvre to fill a trillion bowls of Lucky Charms, but what that really means is that he isn’t afraid to mine his convictions for all they’re worth. Sojourner preaches the high and low lonesome through 33 songs and a short film, and there is comfort, if not joy, in that.
A deep red Canadian sunset bruises the sky as an 18-wheeler hauls its cargo across the plains. Commercial signage in a highway town pervades like blight, yet offers at least some respite, however false, from the great echoing loneliness that surrounds. A couple slow dances to a slightly reworked version of “Be Simple Again”, the girl at once pleased, excited, shy. Her partner’s face cannot be seen. These are a handful of scenes from the 20 minute film The Road Becomes What You Leave, produced by Todd Chandler and Tim Sutton. There are no interviews, no complete live performances, just a gorgeous and haunting set of postcards from the road from a recent Magnolia tour through Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Ontario. Shots overlap between band members doodling through a Warren Zevon cover backstage and Molina doing a damn fine job of video game duck hunting, guitarist Jason Groth snoring on the floor of a hotel room and a pair of young audience members bobbing reverently to the lonesome crowded Midwestern rock. There’s no crying in baseball, and there’s none in rock and roll either as it turns out. The life of the (above, in this case) average touring musician may be lonely and repetitive, but even the smallest divine moments ensure that it is not thankless.
Soundtracked by several past Magnolia cuts, The Road Becomes What You Leave is full of unvarnished and unpretentious moments of humor and beauty. In one of the final scenes, Groth and Molina tear up a karaoke night at the same club they’ve just performed, posing and grimacing in the clichéd style that many still feel embodies rock stars, yet their own onstage antics, though arguably more passionate, are infinitely more reserved. “Hammer Down”, “I Can Not Have Seen the Light”, and “North Star Blues” are what resonate with the serious-faced kids in their audience, who join together as a crowd but experience every note personally, devout witnesses to Molina’s broken-hearted ghosts. Even the smiling, slow-dancing girl clinging sweetly to her beau is in her own head, and swaying to lines like “Everything you hated me for / Honey there was so much more / I just didn’t get busted” no less! That’s the kind of satisfaction that Molina’s songs have always provided: misery in company eases the misery. We may not yet know what comes after the blues, but we know that it’s coming.
The four albums of Sojourner would make just as suitable accompaniment for dozens more lonely Canadian highway movies, but if they never line up with film, happily they will evoke whatever desolate landscapes your mind can conjure. Nashville Moon is the most assured piece here, what would and could have been the next big Magnolia project all by itself. It’s hard to figure how it wasn’t, except that nearly half of its songs had previously been released in different forms: “North Star” (not to be confused with “North Star Blues”) and “Don’t This Look Like the Dark” from the limited edition live Trials & Errors, “Bowery” from the Hard to Love a Man EP, “Hammer Down” from What Comes After the Blues, and “Down the Wrong Road Both Ways” from the CD accompaniment to a book of love poems by young poets. And with the exception of the rousing version of “Hammer Down”, the re-worked songs all suffer slightly at first by comparison to their previously released renditions, as Nashville Moon does away with the band’s penchant for vast, billowing reverb and wide open spaces. Both singer and band sound reined in, subdued, their knives dulled and their dogs defanged.
“Bowery” is played at an even slower tempo than its already slow counterpart, and though over time the song is just too good to be affected, to anyone familiar enough with Hard To Love a Man (likely a good percentage of those willing to drop cash for the Sojourner crate), it’s something of a letdown at first. Conversely, closer “Down the Wrong Road Both Ways” gets full-band treatment where the Isn’t It Romantic version was just voice and guitar, but never achieves that take’s immediacy and power. Still, this is all head and shoulders above the vast majority of the Americana set, who either talk a good game about the country without ever experiencing it, or else can’t see the prairie for the tallgrass. “North Star” features serpentine steel guitar coursing through Molina’s confessional, while “Hammer Down” strikes like its namesake, fitting in well with the disc’s other more percussive tracks, like the gritty “No Moon on the Water” and brief “Montgomery”. Throughout Nashville Moon, the band plays security blanket to the singer’s grief and longing; surrounded by friends, songs like “Texas 71” sing of the “lone star horizon” march stoically on.
The solo Shohola is another story. Self-recorded by Molina at home, it reads like bedroom folk out from a different era, with a sawdust floor and only a few almost-spent candles for illumination. In line with previous solitary efforts, songs like “Shiloh Temple Bell” and “Spanish Moon Fall and Rise” are offered to the night by a single man. The strums and plucks of “Night Country” are some of Molina’s starkest since the first self-titled Songs: Ohia record, while “The Lamb’s Song” manages guitar tones and chords as yet unexplored in his discography. It’s not songwriting-as-therapy, more songwriting-as-séance, music and voice attempting to become corporeal to populate an empty room. On the Sun Session disc, tries another tack, resurrecting “Hold On Magnolia” in that hallowed studio, compressing and shortening the tune into something less despondent and more genteel. A cover of “Trouble In Mind” closes out the short four song set, atop a warm bed of church organ, Molina’s voice again taking on the character of his surroundings.
But perhaps the most revealing disc is Black Ram, where Molina’s songs are played by an entirely different cast of characters; while at heart they retain the songwriter’s distinct style, the contributions of a different band brings back the sense of growth and progress that marked each Molina record from Axxess and Ace on through to Magnolia. After a series of tense yet hushed verses, the title track lurches in its final throes, shucking off the trappings of heartland folk and rock for a more mysterious style. “Kanawha” starts with a martial beat soon met by acoustic guitars and rolls of electric guitar washed in reverb. “What’s Broken Becomes Better” and “Will O’ the Wisp” are similarly toothy, pulsing with feedback as Molina sings of more broken hearts and ghost towns. But Black Ram looks out from the Sojourner boxed set with renewed possibility, as if Magnolia Electric Co. has fulfilled its initial promise through determination, repetition, obsession, all celebrated here, and is now ready to move outside the box, down new roads under wide open skies.