Years from now, we should look back at Magnolia Electric Co. and say that, at the height of their powers -- as they are on Josephine -- they were one of the finest bands going.
The humble beginnings of Josephine came about when Jason Molina and bassist Evan Farrell got together to work on some new song ideas. What began to emerge was something a little more cyclical and thematically linked than anything the band had ever done. And when tragedy struck in December 2007, and Evan Farrell passed away, Jason Molina and the rest of the band wanted to create Josephine as a tribute to their fallen friend.
But though their personal loss is palpable on the record, this is not just a tearful goodbye. This is the band's attempt to bring to life Farrell's artistic vision and hopes for the album. The resulting record is certainly heartbroken, but also the most focused and potent set we've seen from Magnolia Electric Co.
The spacious and forlorn breadbasket rock we've heard from the band, and from Songs: Ohia before them, takes a backseat here to a more stripped-down country feel. This sound, built more on fragile piano than swirling guitar notes, highlights the isolation and loss in which Molina entrenches himself on this record. And while he's surely examined these themes before, there is more of an arc to it on this record. The album explores well the vicious cycle of isolation, the causes that come both from within the individual and from the giant world around them.
It's also got a couple of their finest songs to date. "Shenandoah" should become a certified country lament classic, since Molina's line, "Shenandoah, little darling, my heart's with you", is as devastating and tuneful as anything George Jones sang. And "Whip-poor-will" is a quiet acoustic number that gives Molina a chance to show off his high lonesome warble to great effect. These aren't out-and-out highlights so much as they are glowing moments in a cohesive and brilliant whole, as Magnolia Electric Co. aren't just tighter song-to-song on Josephine, they have also produced their most complete record yet, one as fascinating and intricate as it is fractured by loss. Peter Schreiner's bass lines should not go unnoticed, as they are perhaps the most important unifying element on the whole record. They are tumbling with life, inspired throughout, and one can't help but feel deeply the connection between Schreiner's bracing play and Farrell's importance to the band, and influence over this record.
For the first half of the record -- and record is the right word here, as even on CD you can feel a shift to side B halfway through this set -- the band's earthen sound holds a brightness that at least hints at hope. "If you stop believing", Molina sings on "O Grace!", "that don't mean that it just goes away". And it's those lines that show us Molina has his eye on that bright sliver of hope in the darkness. And while he follows that line with, "It's a long way between horizons, and it gets farther every day", that lonesome feeling still feels like something Molina is trying to get away from, something he'd avoid if he could.
And while he does keep trying, looking west like so many have, for new beginnings on "Song for Willie", Molina knows that, in our darkest times, you can keep that hope in sight, but you might not make it yours right away. In that way, the lover's apology of the title track, or the doo-wop pining of "Rock of Ages", are hopeful in the way they try to leave the past behind, but still broken in the way they can't quite do that. Even as guitars lean on the treble, and voices keen high in the background, that hope still feels distant. And as the first half of the record ends with Molina declaring, "Hope dies last of all", you can feel him, and the band, finally giving in to a sadness they've tried to hold back.
As a result, the record's second half sounds like the first half's shadow. Molina isn't looking at the bright sliver of hope anymore, but committing to the blackness around it, if only to get used to it and maybe to leave it behind eventually. The bright country sound of the first half twists into something more trudging. The piano falls back into spare, low notes. Guitar chugs under Molina's fragile singing. Airy organs can't lift up "Little Sad Eyes", and in "Heartbreak at Ten Paces" all the instruments seem to part and fade behind some of the most soulful singing Molina has done on record to date. This quieter, much sadder second half could feel bogged down if it didn't seem so earned. If it wasn't infused with the feeling that its heartache is inevitable, something the band couldn't avoid if they tried.
Though they don't give in to the heartbreak completely by record's end. "An Arrow in the Gale" is a brief coda where Molina insists, "We better go, Jo" as lightning nips at their heels. It's a reassuring end, and an honest one, where the band lets us know they're not quite past their loss, that they still miss their friend, still feel isolated in this big, faceless world. But they'll move on, keep working, keep making music with the passion they always have.
For an album that often finds them in between -- standing on bridges between lands, fascinated over horizons and sunsets, haunted by ghosts or becoming ghosts themselves -- it is at least a small hope to know that the band will eventually find a destination. They just need to embrace Josephine, who isn't some lost love, or not just that anyway. She's an unattainable feeling, a joy lost and maybe gone forever. This is the record Evan Farrell wanted to make, it's the band's humble attempt to honor their friend, and it must be a small comfort to know that in their loss they have created something this beautiful. Years from now, we should look back at Magnolia Electric Co. and say that, at the height of their powers -- as they are on Josephine -- they were one of the finest bands going. And while a musical legacy like that wouldn't heal any wounds, it would make for a lasting tribute. Not to mention a fitting one.