If the normal trajectory for an artist’s career is to begin by honing the basics and mastering accepted forms and then gradually transcending them through experimentation and idiosyncrasy, then Jason Molina’s has been anything but normal. His early recordings were jagged, jangly stabs at impressionist folk. Words bumped up against each other at odd angles, guitars wobbled and jerked, and the songs themselves paid little heed to good ole verse-chorus-bridge structure. But over a span of eight years, the prolific frontman of Songs: Ohia and now Magnolia Electric Co. has grown more and more enamored with traditional songwriting forms, or at least more adept. But rather than slumping toward mediocrity, he’s found a way to reconcile his particular quirks with his passion for classic country and rock. This is most apparent on What Comes After the Blues, a plaintive, low-key affair that sounds like a full retreat from the grand, thumping Magnolia Electric Co. and live Trials & Errors.
A few of What Comes After the Blues’ tracks were debuted in aluminum form on Trials & Errors. Others, like “Hammer Down”, have been part of Magnolia setlists for a couple years. A little over a week ago “Hammer Down” opened the record’s release party in Chicago as a blue-collar highwayman jam akin to “Farewell Transmission” and “I’ve Been Riding With the Ghost”. But here it’s stripped down to skivvies, Molina strumming and singing a weary road lament: “When it’s been my ghost / On the empty road / I think the stars / Are just the neon lights / Shining through the dance floor.” It’s not the best song here, but it’s immediate and unvarnished, a feeling that pervades even the full band pieces. “The Dark Don’t Hide It” opens the record as it did Trials & Errors: with a few electric guitar down-strokes chugging like Crazy Horse before the full onslaught of the band crashes in. But again, it’s lighter and breezier than its live incarnation. There’s more room given for Jennie Benford’s (Jim and Jennie & the Pinetops) harmonies, Mike Brenner’s steel guitar, and Mike Kapinus’s piano to color on the walls of guitar.
What Comes After the Blues also happens to be the shortest Molina record in many a moon, which is no trivial detail. Past records felt like epic statements, galactic and desolate (Didn’t It Rain) or bearded and bewildered (Magnolia Electric Co. ). So this new found brevity feels like a determined effort to do something a little less, well, fucking huge. “Leave The City” has the potential for enormity written into it, but instead it trips lightly, following a bright trumpet line around the many chord changes while Molina sings “It broke my heart to leave the city / I mean it broke what wasn’t broke in there already.” A couple of years ago, this line might’ve been sung over a bowed bass and a guitar tuned to double dropped standard, but now it’s a country shuffle that lets its implications seep out over time.
Following past turns by Lawrence Peters and Scout Niblett, Benford takes the mic on her own “The Night Shift Lullaby”, which steeped in haunted mountain goodness. “Every muscle vein and bone / Answers to that endless drone / I can hear my old machine still running / Even in my dream,” she sings before being joined by CSNY harmonies on the chorus. Brenner’s slide guitar snakes around here as well, to wonderful effect. “North Star Blues”, not to be confused with Trials’ “North Star”, is also lovely in its starkness and simplicity. Dan MacAdam’s understated violin sings gently throughout and Benford and Molina share their best harmonies of the record. What Comes After the Blues is perhaps typified by the humble earnestness of that vocal interplay, “that simple old tune on the stage.” Sometimes it’s necessary to craft an album full of simple old tunes, familiar ghosts, and thankful blues.