[30 April 2014]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Jason Molina’s work as Songs: Ohia, especially early on, sounded like isolated broadcasts from some distant, loveworn outpost. No one song felt linked to the other, the space between them huge and all-encompassing, the ringing out of one song so total and mysterious and mesmerizing it couldn’t possibly connect to whatever came next. This would change later. Ghost Tropic would take Molina’s huge spaces to their most expansive extreme, while Magnolia Electric Co., which saw Molina transition the project into that album’s name, turned his lonesome poems into swampy rock jams. In all these contexts and others, Molina’s songs thrived.
But the sheath was worn off the nerve in a particular way on his early work, especially because we didn’t know Molina yet. Journey On: Collected Singles celebrates Molina at his most literally isolated, in a series of songs collected on singles, some from tours, some split with other acts like Oneida, some early and some later. It’s a lovingly packaged and wonderful collection of tunes that continues Secretly Canadian’s celebration of their most important musician after Molina passed away last March.
There’s of course rarity to these tracks, and we get to hear stripped-down versions of later classics like “Lioness”, but it also revisits and re-contextualizes Molina’s growth as a musician and songwriter. Early songs like “Boys”, his first recording, bare their teeth in ways we might have forgotten Molina could. He yelps at the end of “Boys” and bellows out the condemning chorus (“We have boys”) as if he’s warning of an oncoming plague of locusts. “Freedom Pt 2” starts with an unbridled scream just after “Trans Am” ends with a howl that splits the song wide-open. Molina would later—in his career and in this set—build his tension on what he doesn’t shout, on what he squeezed down into warbling hushed notes. But these early songs show the bittersweet hurt behind the sound up front and ringing out true and clear. There’s a striking power to it, an immediacy, as the distant dusty guitar and faint percussion get overtaken by Molina’s huge-hearted singing.
This doesn’t feel like a sound Molina left behind so much as preamble for what came later. You can see a similarity in the calmer tones of “Soul”, even if that song shifts from volume to space and silence as its modes of tension. He can still bay at moments here, as on the chorus when he belts out “Love what I know” before he reels it in to almost whisper “about passion”, as if he’s worried he’s exerting some sort of hubris, as if his realization is so fragile it can break at any moment. Other songs, like “Napoleon: How We Have Ranged”, present Molina’s voice as instrument, working alongside the slide guitar like two sounds rising in tandem out of some long held tradition.
And that’s perhaps the unifying element to Journey On. There’s always been something physical about the sound of Molina’s songs, something tactile about the emotions, so it makes sense to press these songs, once again, onto seven-inch records, and it makes sense to flip from side to side to see these little shifts and steps forward in his songwriting one at a time. But to hear them back to back is to hear a voice that may have once been new, but never for a moment felt young. To hear Molina sing about how “the devil knows mercy” on “Nay Tis Not Death” is to feel like he may have stood alongside Robert Johnson while Johnson and the devil made a deal. When he claims “I will swim to you” on “Lioness”, he sounds like a man who’s always been swimming, through rivers centuries older than the country he was born in. In short, Molina comes across here not as a continuation of tradition, but as a sort of tradition himself. As the short, tense early songs open up into the immaculate spaces of “Journey On” or “Black Link to Fire Link”, it does sound like a songwriter honing his powers, but it also feels like a sound taking root.
Like all of the other reissues and tributes that have come after Molina’s passing, Journey On: Collected Singles is first and foremost a celebration. And there is some comfort in hearing a soul clearly wrestling with some darkness find comfort and shelter in these songs. But, perhaps more than any other tribute, Journey On raises questions of what is gift and what is curse. These raw-edged songs seem to swing back and forth between catharsis and unresolved pain. When Molina yelps early on, or pulls at a note until it breaks later, there are heartbreaking moments here, ones where you wonder how much Molina sacrificed to make these sounds, how much they may have taken away even as they also gave, to him and to us. That’s not to say Journey On isn’t beautiful, because it is. And there’s a joy in this careful packaging, in these spinning little discs that seem to contain more in their grooves than the physical world should allow. These songs are, to be sure, things to be celebrated, made by a man who should be remembered for the beauty he brought to the world. But sometimes, in all this beauty and celebration, there’s hurt too.