Jason Molina has made a career out of befuddling critics and audiences alike, from a host of different monikers and side projects — generating a trove of rare and out-of-print material to rival the scope of other artists’ entire careers — to a constantly shape-shifting catalog of working-class rock and heartland country, mountain folk and urban dirges. But the latest from his hard charging Magnolia Electric Co., Fading Trails, is perhaps his most puzzling move yet, a haphazard collection of nine Molina songs from no less than four recording sessions intended for four different releases. It’s hard to decipher exactly what the intent behind Fading Trails might be. As the shortest Molina release since 1997’s Hecla & Griper EP, clocking in at under half an hour, one would expect its charms to be immediately graspable and satisfying. Instead, Fading Trails feels like a handful of decent songs that, thrown together seemingly at random, form an unfortunate snooze of a record. Still, let’s try to figure this thing out by testing a few theories on the record’s origins.
Theory 1: Fading Trails exists because its songs form a cohesive listening experience regardless of the sessions from whence they came.
Except that they don’t. And why go to all of the trouble to emphasize the album’s tangled roots if Fading Trails is a tree like any other? In the liner notes and press materials it is impressed upon us that there are four parent albums floating around in the ether: the Steve Albini-recorded Nashville Moon, the once-lost now-found home-recorded Shohola, the collaboration with David Lowery The Black Ram, and even a session recorded at legendary Sun Studios in Memphis. The odd construction of Fading Trails raises more questions than it answers, particularly because it is apparent on first listen that the songs don’t belong together. Opening with the slow-building “Don’t Fade on Me”, the brief, piano-backed “Montgomery”, and the catchy “Lonesome Valley”, the album starts out like What Came After 2005’s What Comes After the Blues. Then “A Little at a Time” and “The Old Horizon” creep in and kill the buzz. Downshifting from Magnolia’s brawny, meat-and-potatoes rock to sparse, bread-and-water sad-sackiness isn’t the problem. Molina does both equally well, and the songs themselves are gorgeous and intriguing. But squeezed together side-by-side they sound awkward — restless, nervous little ducks separated from their mamas. So why were they separated in the first place?
Theory 2: Fading Trails is a teaser/sampler for the upcoming releases, emissaries from a gloriously fertile indie rock future.
Well, I suppose this is possible. But if so, are these songs album cuts still slated to rejoin their brethren, slapped together here to whet your corduroyed appetites in the meantime? Or are these b-side type castaways, songs that weren’t good enough/didn’t make sense in the company of Shohola, Nashville Moon, etc.? Will any of those records even come out now? Too many questions raised that might not need to be if Fading Trails didn’t sound so damned uncomfortable as a unit, despite its components sounding just fine as individual songs. Brevity is one of the few threads running through the album, and it’s fun to hear Molina continue to pull back from the epic sprawl of Magnolia Electric Co. and Didn’t It Rain, into more concise, traditional three-minute songcraft. The arrangement of “Memphis Moon” packs considerable variety and nuance into its small frame, trading in Molina’s earlier one- and two-chord progressions for more classic rock-influenced melodies and patterns. The heavily road-tested band knocks it out sure-footed, adhering to Molina’s preference of live takes with minimal, if any, overdubs.
Theory 3: Molina is simply so über-prolific that Fading Trails had to be created to collect spillover to satisfy both himself and his audience while waiting for the other four shoes to drop.
I think this theory might be the most likely. With four other records in the can, it’d be too much to expect any label to flood the market with them at once. Fading Trails serves its purpose then in piquing interest, or, at the very least, mixtape/playlist fodder. One of Molina’s greatest strengths is in the consistency of his records, which each have their own distinct, solid characters. Fading Trails is just too scattered to hold up. But listening to “Spanish Moon Fall and Rise” and imagining a better context for its lonesome strum-and-howl, keeps one hopeful for the future.