Songs Ohia Magnolia Electric Co

Songs: Ohia’s ‘Magnolia Electric Co.’ Remains a Dark Triumph

Songs: Ohia’s Magnolia Electric Co. remains a dark triumph in the face of adversity. It was the turning point and apex of Jason Molina’s brief life and career.

Magnolia Electric Co.
Songs: Ohia
Secretly Canadian
3 March 2003

From 1997 to 2009, Jason Molina was one of the most prolific songwriters of his era. He was arguably one of the best songwriters of his generation. However, he received relatively little recognition during his lifetime. Thanks to a well-written biography by Erin Osmon, Riding with the Ghost, and a few tribute albums by some of his most devoted peers, Weary Engine Blues (2013) and Farewell Transmission: The Music of Jason Molina (2014), Molina was at least honored by his contemporaries in death. The fact that Molina is still not lauded as a great American songwriter is a travesty, and one wonders how his influence has not been more widely celebrated today.

Even if Molina did not initially garner widespread attention, he did have fellow musicians who served as rivals and inspirations, the most prominent being Will Oldham (Palace Music/Brothers/Songs, Bonnie “Prince” Billy). Molina got his start thanks to Oldham when friends gave him a tape at a concert because Molina was underage at the time. Eventually, Molina was driven to surpass his friend and mentor and was likely peeved when I See a Darkness (1999) received a perfect ten from Pitchfork, and his equally compelling Axxess and Ace (1999) received a significantly lower—although solid—score. In her book, Osmon described it as a blow to label Secretly Canadian but chalked it up to bad timing. The original review for this album in PopMatters also spoke about the need for Molina to step out of Oldham’s shadow, even though circumstances had not made that easy.

Reflecting upon Molina’s evolution as a musician, one wonders to what extent he was driven by internal impulses, external conditions, or both. The press release for Songs: Ohia’s Axxess and Ace describes a record recorded mostly live and first take with musicians, none of whom were paid, and all who heard the songs for the first time. This was supposed to be Molina’s big breakthrough, but it wasn’t exactly packaged as such. The press release went on to say, “It’s a desperate record, it’s a jealous record, it’s an imperfect record. It is also as incomplete as a man.” That was not a formula for success, and still, Didn’t It Rain (2002) took a similar approach a few years later. Undoubtedly, a specific path led to Magnolia Electric Co. (2003), but whether it was followed or forged is still up for debate.

Songs: Ohia were an ever-evolving project with different musicians, but it felt like a solo effort. On the other hand, Molina’s next iteration of Magnolia Electric Co. had a bigger, fuller sound and more continuity across each release. Magnolia Electric Co. clearly demarcated that shift and stands as Molina’s most unified and fully realized record produced. The evolution that led to this new band was not earth-shattering, like Bob Dylan going electric, but it signified a significant shift in creative energy, not unlike Flake Music becoming the Shins or J. Tillman maturing into Father John Misty. The big difference is that Magnolia Electric Co. were never a reinvention so much as a transformation. 

Looking back upon Molina’s work today, we can see a clear arc in songcraft and themes that have become a part of his lore. Magnolia Electric Co. contained all of the aspects that made Molina so compelling as a musician: his ability to craft songs in the studio that were mostly live and sometimes unrehearsed, his lyrics that contained motifs that were largely universal yet spoke to his tortured soul, and his ability to create moods rooted in place, typically rustbelt America.

From the first pleading notes on perhaps Molina’s most enduring composition, “Farewell Transmission”, we know this will be a somber affair. Surprisingly, it is a primarily improvised one. According to Max Blau, “Farewell Transmission” was the last track recorded and done in a single take after Molina ran through a quick chord progression with the other musicians (this accounts for Molina repeating “Listen” on the fade out). Many of the tracks have minor imperfections that give the recording an unpolished sound, like a bunch of musicians packed into the late Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio, which they were.

Some songs move from the mythic to the mundane, breaking down the barrier between Molina, the artist, and the man. In “John Henry Split My Heart”, he sings about needing money to pay his band now and in the future, which was a genuine issue in his life, something that made him unpopular with many session musicians. In “Just Be Simple”, he delivers a darkly comical repartee: “And everything you hated me for / Honey, there was so much more / I just didn’t get busted.” Molina’s humanity and corresponding flaws sometimes come to the forefront, but unlike Songs: Ohia’s Axxess and Ace, this is not a deeply personal and urgent record. It feels like the first real attempt at perfection, blemishes and all. 

Even with the instinctive approach to recording, many of the songs are direct and contained within a unified structure. In large part, the album is held together by Molina’s sorrowful (at times warbling) voice, a guitar that wanders just as often as it roars, fiddle, and the ever-present lap steel. However, relative simplicity opens up the possibility of spontaneity when played live. For instance, “Almost Was Good Enough” is rather subdued compared to the loose (and I would argue definitive) version on Trials & Errors (2005). Despite the driving energy and overall intensity of “John Henry Split My Heart”, other versions allow musicians to stretch out and jam in places, providing even greater catharsis when the instruments return for the battering crescendo. 

With Songs: Ohia’s Magnolia Electric Co.’s original release of only eight tracks (the tenth-anniversary edition included session bonus tracks “The Big Game Is Every Night” and “Whip-Poor-Will”), one clear strength is a seamless transition from song to song. Where “Farewell Transmission” is filled with universal longing, “I’ve Been Riding with the Ghost” expresses the desperation, regret, and possible renewal of a man who has likely been cheated on and beaten down. Molina pleads, “See, I ain’t getting better / I am only getting behind.” The ghost-like refrain and driving guitar mirror the song’s urgency: “I put my foot to the floor / To make up for the miles I’ve been losing.” The dramatic irony and ultimate tragedy is that the more Molina sings about needing to make a change, we all know how the story will end. 

On Songs: Ohia’s Magnolia Electric Co., there are clear transitions but no filler per se. Molina brings in guest vocalists on back-to-back tracks, Lawrence Peters on “The Old Black Hen” and Scout Niblett on “Peoria Lunch Box Blues”. Each track fits the album’s scope but makes its own lasting impression. “The Old Black Hen” is a traditional country number with a plaintive fiddle at its center, and “Peoria Lunch Box Blues”, is a melancholic tune that rises above other sparse Songs: Ohia compositions through Niblett’s wandering aria. While both songs are dark in their own way, the juxtaposition of the tracks couldn’t be more pronounced. 

Specific themes weave in and out of Molina’s catalog, many of which have come under closer scrutiny following his death. Nearly all of these concepts are stitched together in Magnolia Electric Co. There is the pervading theme of darkness (“Farewell Transmission”) and its byproducts, the blues (“The Old Black Hen”, “Peoria Lunch Box Blues”) and ghosts (“I’ve Been Riding with the Ghost”). A number of songs are about leaving one’s current situation or finding a way back (“I’ve Been Riding with the Ghost,” “Just Be Simple”, “Hold On Magnolia”). Here, the celestial bodies are guides, as are more worldly symbols like the road (“John Henry Split My Heart”). Deeply connected is the blue-collar imagery of toiling every day to no end (“Almost Was Good Enough”). “Farewell Transmission” could occur in Lorain, Ohio, where Molina was raised, or any other rustbelt mill, mine, or factory. These motifs appear in earlier Songs: Ohia releases and Magnolia Electric Co. albums to follow (2005’s What Comes After the Blues in particular), but nowhere are they as omnipresent.

While Molina didn’t get the credit he was due during his lifetime, he had and continues to have a lasting impact on fellow musicians. The list includes but is not limited to Will Oldham, Will Johnson, Phil Elverum, Damien Jurado, Mark Kozalek, Glen Hansard, Arab Strap, Jim James, Band of Horses, Tim Showalter, Amanda Shires, Katie Crutchfield, Kevin Morby, and MJ Lenderman. In a recent interview with Pitchfork, Crutchfield of Waxahatchee said, “No one writes about death better than Jason Molina” and was deeply affected by Molina’s ability to write about his illness in the face of it.   

That authenticity makes it harder to simplify Molina’s life and work. It would be much easier to portray him as an unheralded, alcoholic musician who had essentially given up. The reality is he continued to fight and amass massive rehab and hospital bills as a result. It is a tragic fate for a musician who, for all his dark symbolism, seemed drawn to the light. Perhaps his most enduring sentiment is, “The real truth about it is / No one gets it right / The real truth about it is / We’re all supposed to try.” There are paths to be taken, routes back to better selves, and an opportunity for salvation if all else fails. While our lasting hope is that Molina is now at peace, Songs: Ohia’s Magnolia Electric Co., which serves as the turning point and apex of his career, means his legacy will live on.