Few get more lonesome on record than Will Johnson and Jason Molina. I mean, sure Centro-matic can shake the rafters, and South San Gabriel can expand and overwhelm, and Magnolia Electric Co. often sound as big as the Midwestern sky they came up under, but as front men these guys are frayed at the edges, their voices warbling as they stare off into the dark.
So on paper, these two are a perfect fit to work together. And their inconspicuous beginning — talking hats over a merch table after a Magnolia set — is a fitting start for the duo. And that on-paper matchup, and the minor myth of their start, has yielded Molina and Johnson, a stark yet cautiously hopeful, solitary yet collaborative collection of songs that find the two players building up each others strengths rather than meshing them together for something simpler.
Of course, these guys have recorded plenty of music without their bands before, and it is the feel of both Molina and Johnson’s solo albums that shines through the most. The space of the studio around them is as affecting an instrument as the spare piano or the dusty, creaking guitar. Early on, the record focuses more on Johnson’s vocals, and he leads us through some of the best stuff he’s written. Opener “Twenty Cycles to the Ground” is an understated but arresting pop number. Slight drums and steady guitar thump behind Johnson as his deep rasp sings with a nervous restraint. “I remember all your swearing, and the liquor underneath,” he says, but nearly whispering through his teeth, unable to muster a full accusation for all the hurt. And that fullness, that high note filling out his vocals, making them drip with feeling, that’s just the slightest touch of Molina’s vocals.
The overt signs of collaboration are few and far between here, so those hoping for a dozen straight duets between these two troubadours will be disappointed. But only initially. The way they work together on this record — which is quietly, bordering on silently — ends up making each song stronger. So while Johnson may sing two or three songs in a row, and Molina may get more front man time late in the record, it’s in the darkest corners and the smallest cracks of these songs that the two work together. Johnson’s soft humming fills a chasm between the piano and Molina’s untethered howl on “The Lily and the Brakeman”. Molina betrays Johnson’s hushed confession brilliantly on “Don’t Take My Night From Me”, cracking that silent night air with his pleading voice. These are small touches, almost unnoticeable at first, but when you start to wonder how you keep playing this stark, quiet record over and over again, how a sound this desiccated could sound so bracing, the answers are found in those moments.
Of course, those touches wouldn’t matter if the two weren’t such brilliant songwriters in their own right. Toward the end of the record, Molina answers opener “Twenty Cycles to the Ground” with his own high-water mark, “For As Long As It Will Matter”. The song, all cool, resonant organ and Molina’s to-the-bone vocals rests on heartbreaking lines like “Even yesterday wouldn’t follow me home,” and chords waft up from that organ and drift out far into the air. “34 Blues”, a spare arrangement on guitar and accordion, shows Molina’s singing to be more tempered but no less devastating when he sings, “You can have my heart, but not my secret.”
And there are duets to be found on here. To get the coarse-then-fine interplay of their voices on “Almost Let You In”, with piano ringing out and backing vocals swelling around them, is as beautiful a moment as the two make on this record. And the two also know when to bring in outside help, as Sarah Jaffe sings with Johnson on the blues-dragged-through-the-gutter “All Gone, All Gone”, and she also drips some singing saw over the track and makes it impossible to imagine the song without it.
To hear them talk about it, Will Johnson and Jason Molina say this record came as much from showmanship and challenging each other as it did from mutual appreciation and a sharing of musical visions. And if that is truly the case, that challenging has yielded some of the best work in both their careers. It sounds nothing like their other bands, and only shares that feel with their solo work. This, these twelve fragile, creaking, beautiful songs, is the sound of Molina and Johnson. Their lonesome voices are somehow rendered starker when combined, but they’re also as strong as ever, and delivering words that get down to the marrow. Now we can only hope this isn’t the only time we get to hear these two great songwriters work together. ‘Cause when you hear the last echoing notes of this record, Molina and Johnson 2 starts to sound pretty damn necessary. But playing this again, over and over, in the meantime will do just fine.