Songs: Ohia can leave you totally cold or wrap you in a late-night trance like nobody’s business. I guess that’s one of the perils of a totally idiosyncratic style like Jason Molina’s (Molina is the one-man show making up Songs: Ohia). Molina’s first single appeared on the Palace label, and the Palace comparisons aren’t insignificant no matter how tired they may be. Molina explores issues of personal doubt, feels around in the night for answers that may provide only a moment’s comfort, and doesn’t rage against the darkness so much as he soothes it into complacency. His music is often quiet and private, as if you’re hearing him in his bedroom through a locked door, and his lyrics often distill their truths into single archaicly worded moments. When it doesn’t quite work, it can be a touch tedious. When it’s firing on all cylinders, it’s spellbinding.
Didn’t It Rain finds Molina making some of his most intimate music yet. After the lushness (and lushness is always a relative term with Songs: Ohia — it can often mean that he’s simply added drums to a song) of earlier albums like Ghost Tropic, Molina brings the reality of Songs: Ohia into stark relief — despite the inspired assistance of Jim and Jennie from Jennie & the Pinetops in a plethora of moody backing roles, it really comes down to one guy with a guitar fumbling around for answers.
In what may be a flash of Molina humor, the opening title track begins with what sounds like an upbeat chord, but the song quickly mutes itself into a deep meditation that warns, “they think you’ve got it / They’re gonna beat it out of you / Through work and debt”. It’s one of the finer Songs: Ohia moments, all hushed lyrics and chords that occasionally rise up to focus your attention on an especially important or intriguing lyric.
“Steve Albini’s Blues” continues the vibe with a chiming, repeating guitar pattern and a distant, otherworldly female voice (courtesy of Jennie Benford) floating in the background. Isolated piano notes appear in a slow rhythm, and Jim Krewson’s ragged harmonies provide excellent backup texture.
“Ring the Bell” kicks the tempo up a notch, with insistent guitar and a purpose that seems nicely summed up by the line, “I’m not an idiot”. The song works its way through imagery of serpents and souls, vision-inducing weddings, and “the sound of the world coming down”. Mournful cello underscores the song’s ominous feel. It’s Songs: Ohia spookiness at its best, informed by personal tribulation and nonspecific, religion-tinted imagery. The song bleeds seamlessly into the more downtempo “Cross the Road, Molina”, which retains that cello that sounds like it’s pulling its low notes from some poor soul’s deepest despair. With lyrics like “wolf headed conjuror in the cross roads / Green eyes and alien chant brought the lightning down”, who knows what the hell it’s about (it has a feel of regret over past choices to it), but it’s as evocative as anything on the record.
On “Blue Factory Flame” we get Molina’s (possibly tongue-in-cheek, but how can you ever know) burial instructions: “when I die put my bones in an empty street / To remind me of how it used to be / Don’t write my name on a stone bring a Coleman lantern and a radio / Cleveland game and two fishing / Poles and watch with me from the shore / Ghostly steel and iron ore”. Benford’s vocals again provide a dark, emotional sense to the song. “Two Blue Lights” centers around some pretty straightforward imagery — “you can’t hear it but you can tell / when the bells ring twelve times in hell / the bells ring twelve times in this town as well” — and features Molina’s trademark guitar style to great effect.
“Blue Chicago Moon” ends the record in (for Song: Ohia) magisterial, upbeat fashion. A methodical beat and simple guitar structures lead to Molina offering this glimmer of hope after a record of industrial skylines, archaic crossroads imagery, and spectral atmospherics: “you will come face to face / With that darkness and desolation / And the endless depression / But you are not helpless”. It might not seem like much, but desperation, paranoia, and depression have played such a large role in Molina’s musical output that it’s an extremely comforting sentiment. In his own oblique way, Molina’s crafted one of his most introspective and satisfying Songs: Ohia records yet.